“Did that dazzle you?”
Not long after reading Ben Mezrich’s novel Busting Vegas did I see my first preview for 21, a film based on his previous novel about card counters. The idea of MIT students getting recruited by their professor to take down Vegas is an intriguing yet not so unique concept. Busting Vegas had more interest with its elaborate scheme to win big without needing to count cards in the traditional sense. However, the book was well put together and so I wasn’t averse to checking out this new film. That is until I started hearing all the bad press going around the circuit. So, with low expectations I finally took the opportunity to try it out and while there are definite problems, 21 is not too bad. Obvious and generic as far as story structure goes with a concept well known in America about beating the game of Blackjack, my main gripes were with the small stuff. What I found really working was the fun/entertainment factor. Even though I could guess how it would all turn out, the ride was a joy to partake in.
We have our genius student who did everything right throughout his school career to get into Harvard Medical. What does this kid have to complain about, besides maybe the lack of a stimulating social life? Well how about the $300,000 tuition necessary to actually attend the school itself. Thankfully for Ben, an opportunity presents itself very early on in the application process, for a full scholarship, that could solve all his troubles. A whiz at numbers and pretty much everything to do with analytical thinking, Professor Rosa sees a younger version of himself in Ben, the perfect choice to lead his team of card counters in wiping Vegas clean. Not only does this proposition play on Ben’s need for money, but it also gives him an excuse to get away from the dweeby friends and drab school life. Las Vegas was calling and he was ready to live for the first time in his life. I mean, without any consequences—counting cards is not illegal—what did he have to lose?
It turns out everything. I’m sure if you’ve seen the trailers at all you understand the magnitude of what happens in the “backrooms” of casinos, the place where those on the payroll inflict their own sort of justice. The thing about this film is that the moment when they experience what truly happens isn’t until pretty much the end. We are allowed a nice exposition of how the team nurtures their new point-guard and gets him game ready. The relationships formed become stronger, the takes become bigger, and the theatrics more brazen. There is some nice movement in the shooting style, low angles, extreme close-ups of the signals, and nicely choreographed sequences with the cards flipping, giving a cursory introduction to the system being utilized. I really liked this aspect because it allowed me as the viewer to get a handle on what was going on. At first I was bored, hoping movie magic would gloss over the lesson, but in the end I am thankful for having watched it. All the process jargon is tempered with more humanistic moments to keep us grounded in the story too. Ben and Jill’s friendship evolves; Ben begins to distance himself from the only two friends he had before his recruitment; Ben and ex-top dog on the team Fisher butt heads; and “eye-in-the-sky” Cole Williams watches everything from behind the scenes, looking for a huge bust in order to save his job from being replaced by computer facial recognition software.
It’s all by the books, our hero faces the challenge of stepping out of the villain’s shadow and then giving a little pain back himself. We watch to see how it all turns out, no matter how obvious it will be. The scholarship meeting bookmarks help frame the story nicely, showing what it was all for…$300,000 and he was out; sometimes it’s not that easy. And because of that fact, the cast needed to be a good mix of personalities, all who could pass for geniuses and miscreants. Jim Sturgess has the exact unassuming charm needed to pull off the transformation from bookworm 4.0 student to the high-rolling playboy Ben becomes. He has an everyman quality about him perfect for us to put ourselves in his shoes and think whether we would have been able to resist temptation. The rest of the team is great as well with Aaron Yoo and Liza Lapira adding some humor, Jacob Pitts showing what fame and jealousy can do to your soul if not held in check, Kate Bosworth is solid as the love interest, and Josh Gad exudes soon to be millionaire dork with grace. The real surprise had to be Kevin Spacey though. I would have thought he’d chew as much scenery as possible and while he does overpower at times, the humor he portrays as a quick-witted professor and the glee when he gets to Vegas in the middle of the action really rings true for Rosa, as well as the serious times when his darkside comes out.
Besides the generic Hollywood quality on display, the small things are what bugged me. Should they have as much as they did? Probably not, but nonetheless they nagged at me the entire time. One is Sturgess’ bad American accent. It is weird because when he plays the role, it’s hardly noticeable; however, during every instance of voice-over narration, it was as if he was reciting dictation in a class where he was learning to hide the British. Another example is in the casting of Ben’s friends. These guys are the epitome of geek and yet they are with Sturgess, a guy that can pass for geek if necessary, sure, but do they have to stick him with these two guys? The juxtaposition is so broad that it just stuck out like a sore thumb. Sometimes bashing the audience over the head isn’t the best way to go about your business. Otherwise, a good effort for a brainless popcorn flick. One could do a lot worse.
21 6/10 | ★ ★ ½