21Directed by Robert LuketicStarring Jim Sturgess, Kate Bosworth, Kevin Spacey and Laurence FishburneRated PG-13*3*
Goes well with: Rain Man, Lucky You, Hard Eight
Lots of people think the object of blackjack is to get as close to 21 without going over. They're wrong. The only point to the game is to beat the dealer. The casual bible for doing so is called “Basic Strategy,” and it's available in books and on wallet cards, and you can keep it handy when you're at the table, because even using that basic formula, which tells you when you should take another card and when you should stay, depending on what cards you have and what the dealer has showing, the odds are still in favor of the house. Card counting, which is what 21 purports to be about, can change those odds in favor of the player. But the new film from Legally Blonde director Robert Luketic takes a fascinating subject—the notorious card-counting teams from MIT that were featured in Ben Mezrich's best-seller, Bringing Down the House—and reduces it to, well, a film that is basic and formulaic.
The movie opens with MIT undergrad Ben Campbell (Jim Sturgess) in an interview for the Robinson Scholarship, which would pay his way through Harvard Medical School. That's how we know Ben is brilliant, geeky and broke and that the scholarship is the only way he can go, setting up a lame framing device for the story: Ben—devoid of real-life experience—needs an essay topic that will blow away the competition. (Without accounting for the fact that there are student loans for this sort of thing, and that he is already somehow paying for MIT.)
Luckily, life experience finds him. Yep, Ben is so smart that he's recruited by the secret MIT card-counting team, run by Professor Mickey Rosa (Kevin Spacey), a Svengali who bankrolls some good-looking college kids on weekend jaunts to Vegas. The team works together to secretly count the cards—paying attention to what cards have already been played to give them a better shot of beating the dealer. Ben is reluctant to join until hottie Jill Taylor (Kate Bosworth) uses her feminine wiles to convince him to come aboard. Of course, for Ben, it's all about making just enough money to attend Harvard.
And there's the simplistic Faustian morality tale that is 21. Nice guy Ben makes his Harvard money via gambling, which the filmmakers condemn by the end of the picture, and even in a disclaimer of sorts to not try this at home (or in Vegas).
That's where things just stop making sense. Card counters aren't supposed to look like they're counting cards—and all these guys do. They're supposed to pretend they don't know one another, so why are they constantly giving each other knowing looks across the table? Ben is a brilliant guy, but he hides his loot in his dorm room? How is it that the old-school heavy (Laurence Fishburne), who is losing most of his casino security contracts to facial-recognition software, has an all-access pass to every hot spot on the Strip? Would a group of wealthy young 20-year-olds really choose, as their Vegas hangout, the one strip club where the girls don't actually strip? Why does Jill have a thing for Ben anyway? He's dull as a geeky Boston guppy and irritating as a rich Vegas whale. And why do the filmmakers think we'll buy the endgame con, which is ridiculous and tacked on to just tie things up nicely?
This movie has some flashy shots at the tables, but the plot holes are big enough to drive a stretch-limo through. Sure, Spacey is fun as the scenery-chewing Mephistopheles, and Ben's two geeky comic-relief buddies, who get ditched for the cards, are amusing, but it's painful to watch a movie that's supposed to be about intelligence, guile and subtlety end up so hopelessly obvious.