Glitzy, escapist drama gambles it all on a game of cards
By Devin D. O’Leary
Directed by Robert Luketic
Cast: Jim Sturgess, Kate Bosworth, Kevin Spacey, Laurence Fishburne
America loves to play cards. Hollywood loves to gamble. Over the years, and with increasing frequency, the movie industry has tried to exploit this by giving us films about card-playing: The Cincinnati Kid, California Split, Maverick, Rounders, The Cooler, Lucky You. Hell, even the last James Bond film managed to shoehorn in a pivotal Texas hold-’em sequence. The new film 21 adds to this ever-increasing pot, providing yet another Vegas-bound drama for people who have watched “Celebrity Poker Showdown” once or twice and can sing at least the chorus to Kenny Rogers’ “The Gambler.”
Generally speaking, watching someone play cards is about as exciting as watching someone work on a computer (which hasn’t stopped Hollywood from making a lot of dull movies about both subjects). 21 attempts to alleviate this problem by cribbing its true-life inspiration from Ben Mezrich’s bio-book Bringing Down the House: The Inside Story of Six M.I.T. Students Who Took Vegas for Millions. This allows producers to cast a bunch of sexy young twentysomethings and focus on the party-hearty lifestyle of Vegas’ high-roller penthouses.
Jim Sturgess (last glanced in Across the Universe) stars as Ben Campbell (our first sign this film is going to deviate from Ben Mezrich’s book by quite a wide margin). Ben’s a hotshot student at M.I.T. He’s allegedly the smartest kid in school; but since he’s not a minority, he doesn’t rate a scholarship. (Hurry up and heal that racial divide, Obama!) Ben wants to go on to med school at Harvard. But where is he going to raise the $300,000 tuition?
Enter fast-talking mathematics professor Micky Rosa (Kevin Spacey). Every semester, Rosa schools a tight-knit underground group of math whizzes on the finer points of card-counting. On weekends, they jet out to Las Vegas and soak some poor blackjack dealer for a hundred grand or so. Ben, being a cowardly nerd, wants nothing to do with it. A little pressure from the brainy babe in the group (Blue Crush cutie Kate Bosworth), though, and Ben folds like a house of cards.
Soon, he’s the team’s chief moneymaker, raking in the dough with his superior card-counting abilities and his emotionless attitude. In time, greed, jealousy and (PG-13-rated) sexual shenanigans get in the way, threatening to put an end to our college kids’ high-rolling escapades. Yes, these innocent young kids who suddenly strike it rich, throwing their lot in with criminals and blowing off school and all their loyal, longtime friends, actually have a lesson to learn here.
While 21 is a generally fun romp, most of its drama feels heavily fabricated. We get an dea of how card counting works (or used to, anyway), but the screenwriters are obliged to tack on the usual Hollywood trappings, including comedy relief, a love story, a bad guy and a crazy twist ending.
Every story needs a villain, and 21 kindly supplies two of them. When Ben inevitably transforms from stammering nerd to cocky gambler, Spacey’s menacing genius (spillover from his role as Lex Luthor in Superman Returns?) steps in to bring the hammer down. Seems he’s an old hand at this cheating business and isn’t about to let his prize students slip away without a few thinly veiled threats. Biding his time in the shadows is old-school “loss prevention specialist” Cole Williams (Laurence Fishburne), who isn’t above providing a beatdown in the basement of the casino when it comes to card-counters. Stuck in the middle are, you guessed it, our photogenic young stars.
If you’re a card-counter, you know enough to guess what the next card is going to be. If you’re a regular movie viewer, you know enough to guess where this film is headed. Astute audience members will most likely figure out this film’s ending shortly after the halfway mark. That’s unfortunate, because it bleeds a lot of the tension out of the film, making the climax seem rather formulaic. Director Robert Luketic (best known for mainstream rom-coms like Legally Blonde) doesn’t seem particularly concerned by that, gladly tossing reality aside for an escapist fantasy about big money, long falls and heaps of poetic justice. Nobody truly wins in this deal, but young audiences, toward whom all this lightweight glitz is geared anyway, will be perfectly happy to come out even.
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