21 isn’t so much based on Ben Mezrich’s non-fiction account “Bringing Down the House: The Inside Story of Six M.I.T. Students Who Took Vegas for Millions” as intrigued by the idea: a charismatic but corrupt MIT math professor who lures his top students into a gambling team, coaches them in card counting and codes for passing information, and then rakes 50% of their winnings without setting foot in a casino. The film simply drops the idea into a conventional tale of innocence corrupted by the dazzle of easy money and the fantasy life of Vegas excess, not to mention the thrill of the illicit.
Jim Sturgess (Across the Universe) is the working class math genius Ben. With his tussled hair and crooked grin and sloppily casual attire, he’s a charismatic science nerd destined to graduate, at least socially, from his geek squad of goofball buddies, and an easy draft pick for Team Vegas. “I’m only doing this for medical school,” he promises, still the good boy pushed into bad behavior by desperation. “$300,000 and I’m out.” Sure. Think of Ben as a Peter Parker who gets bitten by the gambling bug and comes out with the alter-ego of a high-rolling Vegas hustler that changes identity as often as he changes casinos.
Kevin Spacey has fun as the devious MIT professor who charms his classes with lectures full of patter and jokes, but there’s little dimension to his devious puppetmaster of a gambling godfather, manipulating college kids to put themselves on the line while he rakes in the profits. He plays the chummy mentor with his new recruit, a big brother inviting the outcast to join the cool kids for extra credit that pays off in hard cash. “It’s not illegal,” Professor Mickey insists, but neither is it gambling and it’s all off the books. He’s vague on the actual repercussions of getting caught, and he’s quick to turn that charm into menace when the kids defy his rules and lose his money.
Kate Bosworth only appears to be a member of the team. She’s really just another prize handed out by the film, the golden girl to be attained by our hard-working hero, and has barely more personality than the stock types that film out the team, easily identified by their defining quirks (you know, one’s a cocky womanizer, one’s a clowning klepto, and so on).
Laurence Fishburne is the old-school security director, the human eye in the sky who picks up Ben on his radar and figures out the scam. His style of casino surveillance is giving way to computerized systems with sophisticated face recognition software, so this becomes something of a personal grudge match: his last big takedown before forced retirement. He’s the only real wild card in this stacked deck of characters, a guy whose inflections suggest the old Rat Pack Vegas and hard knuckle tactics evoke the mob.
The rest is pure formula jazzed up with music and color and visual razzle dazzle, the easier to distract from the idiotic behavior done by ostensibly smart people. It’s the old Hollywood game of payback in place of amends, which makes for short-term satisfaction but a hollow payoff.
Director Robert Luketic tries to sweep the viewer into Ben’s headlong rush of high-living sprees but the glitz doesn’t distract from the empty characters… or the sloppy plotting (for a genius, Ben is pretty stupid about hiding a small fortune in large bills).
The climax follows suit, offering payback in place of amends and hollow life lessons: It’s all about beating the house. “21” is a morality tale in which a winning hand trumps doing the right thing.
Read my review in the Seattle P-I here.
Also reviewed this week in the Seattle P-I is Run, Fat Boy, Run, starring Simon Pegg (Shaun of the Dead) as a paunchy and egregiously irresponsible guy who fled the altar on wedding rather than marry his pregnant girlfriend (Thandie Newton) and now tries to prove his worth by running a marathon that he is, clearly, unprepared for.
This is a comedy of redemption, of course, as well as an underdog sports comedy. Dennis is the everyman who pushes through against all odds, and the marathon is the symbolic vehicle for the man-child’s belated adulthood. But to get us rooting for this git, the film takes the easy way out and turns his nemesis — Libby’s confident and considerate new boyfriend (Hank Azaria) — into a manipulative jerk and control freak. The talented Newton is wasted in yet another passive role as the romantic prize fought over by the two men.
The complete review is in the P-I here.