United States, 2008
Directed By: Robert Luketic
Written By: Allan Loeb and Peter Steinfeld, from a book by Ben Mezrich
Starring: Jim Sturgess, Kate Bosworth, Kevin Spacey
Running Time: 122 minutes
Rated PG-13 for some violence, and sexual content including partial nudity
This review was originally published March 29th, 2008.
21 is essentially a film that wants to be a combination of A Beautiful Mind and Catch Me if You Can for the teenybopper set, and it comes relatively close to making it over the bar. It’s not as smart as either one of those two, but it’s got a modicum of substance—plus it’s got style coming out the wazoo. There’s not an explosion to be had here, but there’s so much visual flourish that you really have to see it on the big screen (unless, of course, you’re one of those people with one of those 1,000-inch plasma screens and Dolby 500.3 Surround Sound—in which case, give some money to the poor, dude).
Given this, it’s not all that surprising that this one comes from Robert Luketic, who showed massive amounts of visual inventiveness in 2001’s Legally Blonde (if you’re wondering where he’s been since, I’m sorry to report that he directed two really awful romantic comedies—Monster-in-Law and Win a Date with Tad Hamilton!—but he’s back in form here). This one has the same sort of silly comedy mixed with serious drama—though this one is more drama than comedy—plus occasional bits of intrigue. It fails to throw anything particularly unexpected into the mix, but it’s a pleasure to watch the story unfold. Luketic even adds a few twists, which, even though they’re not all that surprising, are both entertaining and emotionally satisfying.
21 is based on Ben Mezrich’s autobiography Bringing Down the House: The Inside Story of How Six M.I.T. Students Took Vegas for Millions, and that title tells you almost everything you need to know about the plot. Jim Sturgess plays Ben, a senior at M.I.T. who’s determined to go to Harvard Medical College, but is still trying to figure out how to pay his way. Then he meets Mickey Rosa (Kevin Spacey), a math professor who’s engaging in some shady dealings in Vegas. Well, maybe they’re not all that shady—all he does is wrangle some students into blackjack pits, where they calmly count the value of the cards that have been dealt, and then use that information to place bets—no, not really bets: these wagers are essentially sure-things. And it’s not illegal.
But then again, since when has legality mattered in Vegas?
It should come as no surprise that this practice is frowned on by the casinos, who like their money, and are essentially above the law. This provides much of the opposition to our heroes as they play the odds, but none of it is particularly surprising or intriguing—something the film seems basically aware of, in that it more or less fully divulges what’s going on behind the scenes (using sets that looks like something out of 24 (21 + 3? anyone?)—doesn’t anyone in TV and the movies work in normal, drab offices?). Laurence Fishburne, as a casino bouncer, shows a disappointing lack of depth, but his grunts and grimaces are undeniably entertaining. The biggest surprise of the film is Kevin Spacey’s character, who switches between a good-natured, Dead Poets Society-style professor and a creepy mob boss figure with aplomb. He’s a complex character that you can love and hate at the same time.
What’s disappointing about 21, like A Beautiful Mind before it, is that it seems to be consciously dumbing itself down to appeal to as wide a range of audience members as possible (and if you doubt that it’s going for the lowest common denominator, consider the multitude of scenes filmed in a strip club). None of the theories the characters employ—either in gambling or in higher math—are really explained to the audience (you might say “That would be boring”—but it wouldn’t have to be, if it was done right). Similarly, there was only one particularly “nerdy” joke cracked (and admittedly, I was the only one laughing in the theater). More of this sort of banter might have left most of the theater scratching their heads, but it would have made 21 a much richer and colorful experience (as well as making the characters seem more true-to-life).
As I’ve said, though, 21 has more than enough visual tricks to make up for its other shortcomings. (If you go to see this one, try to catch a digital screening—celluloid doesn’t quite do it justice.) Luketic’s employed all sorts of cranes, tracking, and mirrors to keep up the viewer’s interest; everything he does here is meaningful, though. This is a film where every detail, up to and including the texture on the playing cards, says something specific about the action; there’s a richness in every scene that’s not entirely warranted by the relatively facile script, and it works. Add to this one of the few good techno soundtracks out there (featuring artists like Moby and UNKLE), and this one’s not too hard to recommend.