March 27, 2008


I just want to play some cards, so would
you please stop calling me "The One"?

Grade: C +
Director: Robert Luketic
Starring: Jim Sturgess, Kevin Spacey, Kate Bosworth, and Laurence Fishburne
MPAA Rating: PG-13

Running Time: 2 hours, 3 minutes

I bet that a faithful film adaptation of the true-story behind Ben Mezrich’s best-selling book Bringing Down the House: The Inside Story of Six M.I.T. Students Who Took Vegas for Millions would make an interesting, entertaining movie. I would also bet the house that movie isn’t 21, a so-called “fact-based” interpretation of Mezrich’s non-fictioner that is as slick and superficial as its Las Vegas backdrop.

Presuming that its remarkable premise will suffice, the film eschews such pesky nuisances as character development and narrative cohesion. The college students training in secret to count cards and win big at blackjack, together with their instructor and sensei Micky Rosa (Kevin Spacey, skilled but always one beat away from slipping into a Juilliard acting exercise, or a Vegas lounge act), appear without any explanation of how or when their racket began, how they slip away from campus (and class) unnoticed for long-weekend sojourns to Vegas, or – and here is a novel concept – any backstory about the kids themselves. Counting cards is hard enough, but good luck figuring out how Micky once matriculated from a two-bit card-hustler into a tenured M.I.T. prof.

We become slightly more familiar with Ben Campbell (Jim Sturgess), a mathematics wiz who harbors dreams of enrolling in Harvard Medical School after graduation, so long as he can save enough money for tuition off his salesman job at a local men’s wear store. Enter the dual enticements of Micky’s promise of riches and Ben’s goo-goo eyes for fellow card-shark Jill Taylor (Kate Bosworth). Soon, Ben and Co. are redeye-flying and limo-riding down the Strip, gaming the gaming houses under the suspicious eye of a loss prevention agent played by Laurence Fishburne.

So enamored is director Robert Luketic with the allure of Sin City that the endless slow-motion, neon-bathed montages tracing the students’ casino and club hopping plays more like a promotional video for the Las Vegas tourism office. Indeed, the true cautionary lesson here is to not entrust one’s film in the hands of a director whose last three efforts were Monster-in-Law, Win A Date With Tad Hamilton!, and Legally Blonde, or, for that matter, a co-screenwriter – Peter Steinfeld – whose last three credits are Be Cool, Analyze That, and Drowning Mona.

Ben’s intrusive voiceover narration, used to mount just part of the leaden script, only reminds you of a far superior college-set gambling film, John Dahl’s Rounders, a character-driven morality play that successfully incorporated a respect for the art of the game. 21 never competently marries the two, glossing over the machinations of the students’ scheme while ultimately relying on a series of false, increasingly preposterous endings, including a plot twist that is as predictable as it is implausible.

Blessed with a bounty of potential, 21 takes its winning hand and goes bust.

Neil Morris

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