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With: Jim Sturgess, Kevin Spacey, Kate Bosworth, Aaron Yoo, Liza Lapira, Jacob Pitts, Laurence Fishburne, Jack McGee, Josh Gad, Sam Golzari, Helen Carey, Jack Gilpin
Written by: Peter Steinfeld, Allan Loeb, based on a book by Ben Mezrich
Directed by: Robert Luketic
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for some violence, and sexual content including partial nudity
Running Time: 123
Date: 03/07/2008

21 (2008)

2 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

No Big Deal

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

"We're not gambling... we're counting," says Kevin Spacey in the new Las Vegas tale 21, which is a very appropriate way to sum up the film itself. Director Robert Luketic has never once made a movie about actual human beings, and he isn't about to start now, even though he has switched from pinheaded comedies like Legally Blonde (2001), Win a Date with Tad Hamilton! (2004) and Monster-in-Law (2005) to a more "serious" drama. And bonus! This one is "based on a true story," which always gives lazy filmmakers carte blanche to lay back and let the story glide by on auto-pilot. If anyone balks, they can just say, "but it really happened!" George Washington may have crossed the Delaware, but that yarn doesn't hold water onscreen unless it feels right. And with the soulless Brett Ratner cropping up as one of this film's producers, it's no wonder there's a lack of weight.

The good news, however, is that the first two-thirds of 21 has a tantalizing allure, partly because Luketic and screenwriters Peter Steinfeld and Allan Loeb keep us in the dark along with the naïve young hero, Ben Campbell (Jim Sturgess). Ben is a superbrain who has co-invented a robot car and is about to graduate from MIT. He's been accepted to Harvard Med, but lacks the funds to pay for it. A magnificent scholarship is just out of reach, unless he can write a great essay. Trouble is, he's never done anything worth writing about. Luckily, a math professor, Mickey Rosa (Kevin Spacey) notices Ben's steel-trap mind and the cool head that goes with it and invites him to join a special team of card-counters. The group is made up of the usual two-dimensional, easily-identifiable character types, plus the cute girl, Jill (Kate Bosworth) Ben has been mooning over; they travel to Las Vegas on weekends and clear many thousands of dollars with their skills.

This is where 21 gets dopey. Ben promises that he's going to make just enough to pay for Harvard, then get out, but the allure of Vegas and winning, and all that goes with it gets to him and he turns arrogant. The good news is that Luketic's fantasy world of wealth, hotel suites, high-class clubs and expensive clothes rubs off, and it's a lot of fun to give in to it, to luxuriate in it. Spacey's sharp performance, made up of his usual quietly clipped line readings, helps a great deal; he lends the film a sense of cool. In one scene, he insults someone with the words "you arrogant little infant," and you almost wish you could hear him roll those words over his tongue again. Laurence Fishburne turns up as another part of the movie's cool factor; I wish I could say the youngsters had it, but they just don't. Fishburne plays the last of a dying breed; a "loss prevention" agent who takes cheaters down to the basement and pummels them (but only after he carefully removes his ring, slides it around a beautiful pen and pockets both).

Vegas is cool, baby, but the movie slights us on the math. It tries to explain the counting technique, with high cards representing a +1, medium cards neutral and low cards a -1, but all this raises more questions than it answers. How does one start counting? Do these numbers coincide exactly with the 21 points that make up a blackjack, or are they separate? Ultimately, this is supposed to be a movie about some of the smartest people in the world, and yet they fall for the oldest, stupidest tricks in the book; the illusion of intelligence is easily shattered. Once the bratty young cast loses that much, they make you yearn for a real cast (George Clooney, Robert De Niro, Sean Connery, Johnny Depp, etc.) in a real Vegas movie. Those guys may not be able to count cards, but at least they're not stupid.

DVD Details: Sony has released a fairly underwhelming two-disc set. Disc one comes with an innocuous commentary track (with director Luketic and two producers) and the usual treasure trove of Sony trailers (more than a dozen). Disc two comes with three measly featurettes, all filled with clips and talking heads. The big selling point is a digital version of the film for your computer, although Mac users are excluded (Lionsgate recently provided the same feature for The Bank Job and somehow managed to make it available for all computer users). 21

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