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21   C-

Columbia Pictures / Relativity Media

Year Released: 2008
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Director: Robert Luketic
Writers: Peter Steinfeld, Allan Loeb (based on the book Bringing Down the House by Ben Mezrich)
Cast: Jim Sturgess, Kevin Spacey, Kate Bosworth, Aaron Yoo, Liza Lapira, Jacob Pitts, Laurence Fishburne, Jack McGee, Josh Gad.

Review by Rob Vaux

Even though it's set in Vegas, I'm not sure we can cut 21 any slack for being as empty and shallow as it is. The razzle-dazzle flashes across the screen like stacks of casino chips, starting with a slick crawl along the impossibly large grooves of a card on the blackjack table and proceeding through a carefully choreographed wet dream of wealth without consequences. Its youthful target demographic will doubtless eat it up, seduced by director Robert Luketic's gorgeous display of hot young things and the naughty capers they pull off. The rest of us may note with depressing clarity how simplistic and convenient it all is, how it revels in illogical fantasy at the expense of its potentially wonderful concept, and how dull, clichéd, and uninteresting the characters stubbornly remain, despite a generally appealing cast. I probably should have given it a lower grade, but I really, really like watching Laurence Fishburne hurt people, so I'll let it ride for his sake.

21 also gets credit for lionizing intelligence as a virtue -- something fairly uncommon in Hollywood's perennial rush to the lowest common denominator -- even though it has precious little of its own to spare. Its protagonists are brainy MIT seniors possessing knacks for mathematics that border on the terrifying. Their Fagin-esque professor (Kevin Spacey) employs them in a scheme to count cards on the Strip. Blackjack, which hinges on measurable odds that change every time a new card is played, can be tooled if you plant the right nerd at the table, and Spacey's Mickey Rosa pretty much has the pick of the litter. His prize pupil is Ben Campbell (Jim Sturgess), honest and hard-working, but too dirt poor to afford the Harvard Medical School to which he's just been accepted. The other kids include a bevy of ready-made stereotypes: a smarmy rival (Jacob Pitts), a hot romantic interest (Kate Bosworth), and a pair of token minorities (Aaron Yoo and Liza Lapira) presented as an afterthought to remind us that, you know, brown people can be smart too.

The scenario stems from actual fact, recounted in the book Bringing Down the House in which a similar group of students used their skills to take Sin City to the cleaners. 21, however, sees the method itself as little more than window dressing, downplaying it in favor of empty montages designed to mindlessly fire the adrenal glands. Once we grasp the basics of the system, Luketic relegates it to the back burner, focusing instead on Campbell's slow moral decay, the curdling poison of easy money, and the fact that Rosa has (*gasp*) an agenda beyond helping his students get rich. A number of significant questions creep up in the interim, while the reasonably slick scheme eventually bogs down beneath silly disguises and fake IDs. The supposedly brilliant Campbell never finds a proper way to hide his winnings (try a safety deposit box next time kid; they're cheap and easy to use), while his supposedly legal card-counting antics soon draw the attention of casino thug Cole Williams (Fishburne) -- planted there solely because the script needed a piece of overt conflict.

The remainder of 21 buries us with flimsy coming-of-age tropes, as Campbell ignores his dweeb friends in favor of the flash and sizzle of his new life, and comeuppance only appears once he becomes too cocky for his own good. The film works overtime to revel in its characters' wild ride -- to sweeten the get-rich-quick fantasy in every way it can -- before half-heartedly lecturing us on the evils of excessive greed. In order to accommodate it, Luketic has to wrap his finale around preposterous story twists and a few hasty lines of dialogue that beggar the belief of even the most indulgent filmgoer. It should have just stuck with the wish-fulfillment half of the equation: it still would have been amoral, but at least it would have been honest.

It's all the more exasperating because the core notion has real pizzazz, and the intricacies of card counting might have been the basis for a far more fascinating movie. So too does the cast speak to better things -- Spacey fits his character quite well and both Sturgess and Bosworth are likeable, if a trifle smug -- despite the limp narrative crushing them flat beneath its grip. Luketic has style to burn (Vegas has rarely looked so gorgeous) and could have exercised it without slipping into such mind-numbing excess. But 21 views its central theme as the means, not the end: a way to tell a boring story about two-dimensional people rather than something truly different or original. It could have just as easily have been about a bank robbery or some "internet scheme" involving long takes in front of a computer. The only difference as far as 21 can see is that the casino floor looks better in 70mm. So easily does it throw away its best assets -- so quickly does it slip into lazy autopilot -- that the tantalizing possibilities on display only compound how far short of them it falls.

Review published 03.28.2008.

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