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Actually, It is Just a Game

Loosely based on (actually "inspired by") Ben Mezrich’s non-fiction bestseller, Bringing Down the House: The Inside Story of Six MIT Students Who Took Vegas for Millions, 21 is an underwritten, clichéd, implausible, contrived film that fits all too neatly into the rise-fall-redemption narrative structure we’ve seen countless times before. Directed by Robert Luketic (Monster-in-Law, Win a Date with Tad Hamilton!, Legally Blonde) from Peter Steinfeld and Allan Loeb’s screenplay, 21 is part morality play, part wish-fulfillment and pure Hollywood hokum. It’s also -- surprise, surprise -- sporadically entertaining, thanks primarily to an enthusiastic young cast and a purchase-worthy soundtrack.

Steinfeld and Loeb’s screenplay centers on Ben Campbell (Jim Sturgess), a math wiz with a 4.0 GPA at MIT who dreams of going to Harvard Medical School and, of course, becoming a doctor one day. However, Ben is what you’d call "financially needy". Unless he gets a full scholarship, he won’t be able to afford Harvard’s pricey tuition bill ($300,000 over four years is quoted). To get that full scholarship, Ben has to come up with a killer essay that separates him out from the pack of overachievers who applied and got into Harvard. Having led a dull, unengaging life centered on academics and an upcoming robotics competition he’s entered with his two best friends, Miles Connoly (Josh Gad) and Cam (Sam Golzari), Ben can’t come up with anything.

Ben’s prayers are answered by one of his math professors, Micky Rosa (Kevin Spacey). Rosa offers Ben a classic Faustian bargain: join Rosa’s Blackjack team, go to Vegas, make hundreds of thousands of dollars, then “retire” to medical school. Ben balks at first, but the lure of easy money and the MIT girl of his dreams, Jill Taylor (Kate Bosworth), push him into agreeing to Rosa’s proposal.

Besides Jill, Rosa’s team includes three other MIT students, Choi (Aaron Yoo), Kianna (Liza Lapira), and Fisher (Jacob Pitts). With Rosa as their offsite coach, the Blackjack team goes to Vegas, uses their smarts to count cards (legal, but frowned upon by the casinos), and walk away hundreds of thousands richer. To avoid casino scrutiny, the team uses fake identities and, later, disguises. Eventually, a Vegas security expert, Cole Williams (Laurence Fishburne), begins to suspect Ben is using a new system to count cards.

21 follows the rise-fall-redemption narrative with next to no imagination, and consequently, without much in the way of suspense or surprise. That’s a net negative any way you look at it, but 21 only works (or has a chance of working) if we, as moviegoers, can relate to or care for the central character. Ben has everything going for him, smarts, talent, and a bright future. What he doesn’t have is money, but if his real goal is medical school then why not borrow the money, like anyone in his circumstances would? He certainly won’t be poor when he graduates from Harvard. In fact, a lucrative future is all but guaranteed. What’s missing from 21 then is a relatable character and Ben is certainly not that character. His seduction by money, power, and sex (in other words, the usual) rings more and more hollow with each implausibly contrived plot turn that leaves 21 in noir territory.

Brit actor Sturgess at least knows his way around an American accent even if his halting, stuttering speech and awkward body language can only take his underwritten role so far. Bosworth puts her cheekbones to good use as the temptress/potential girlfriend/potential femme fatale. With the exception of one or two early scenes set at MIT, Spacey gives a bland, unengaging performance. Likewise, alas, with Luketic’s direction, which relies far too much on quick cuts and slow motion to add energy and excitement where there’s little to be found. Shooting on fuzzy, hazy HD didn’t help Luketic’s cause either, but at least he (or his producers) had good taste in the music they picked for 21 (e.g. LCD Soundsystem, Amon Tobin, Rihanna, and the Rolling Stones). Hey, that’s something, right?

Rating: 2.5 out of 5 stars