“21” tries desperately to be slick like its older brothers, the “Ocean’s Eleven” films. It’s got those quick-cut, whirl-around camera shots, the dazzling lights and chesty patrons of Vegas, and even slow motion strutting in expensive suits. So then why does it come off as a cheap knockoff? Well, lead actor Jim Sturgess (“Across the Universe”) is not the three-headed behemoth of cool that is Clooney, Pitt and Damon. Besides that, the film overglamorizes a true story that was actually pretty damn cool to begin with, before it got all the “Fight Club” camera effects and “Snatch” twist endings.
The movie is (loosely) based on the true story told in Ben Mezrich’s book “Bringing Down the House” about a team of MIT students and their professor who took Vegas casinos for millions in the ’90s. But before you get any bright ideas know that card counting in blackjack these days is nothing short of impossible, with facial recognition software and multiple decks constantly shuffled at random. And these kids are the reason why.
Ben Campbell (Sturgess) has it all: a 1590 SAT, a 44 MCAT and a 4.0 GPA at MIT – who could ask for anything more? Well, his only missing piece is cash; he needs substantial funds ($300K) to be able to attend Harvard Medical School, his dream college since he was a little boy. He tells this sad story to an unimpressed scholarship interviewer who reminds him he needs something “special” that really “pops off the page” because, after all, last year this prestigious full-ride was given to a Korean immigrant with one leg.
After dazzling his teacher, Professor Rosa (Kevin Spacey, “Superman Returns”), in class one day, Ben gets his chance to break out of the ordinary by joining the MIT blackjack team, a bunch of card-counting whiz-kids who make hundreds of thousands of dollars every weekend in Vegas.
The team most notably includes klepto-Asian Choi (a very underappreciated and underused Aaron Yoo, “Disturbia”) and brainiac hottie Jill (Kate Bosworth, “Superman Returns”), who proves that just because you go to MIT doesn’t mean you can’t have perfect bone structure. Along with a few other more forgettable members, the team counts cards and flash secret (yet ridiculously obvious) signals at each other so the big player, Ben, can rack up the dough while everyone else plays it cool by betting the bare minimum.
After a fairly enjoyable start, we soon find ourselves trapped in an all too predictable story arc that is kicked off by the nerdy kid putting on a flashy suit after he starts winning. Thinking he’s now too cool for school, Ben blows off his old MIT friends, goes against the team and starts gambling, rather than counting, losing a huge chunk of money and also his spot on the squad. Spacey is in true form as the control-freak Professor Rosa, perfecting his anti-Tom Hanks status as an actor who you know is great, but find yourself hating every single one of his characters. When the good professor takes all Ben’s cash and threatens to bounce him out of MIT with a failing grade in his class, it’s hard to fall in love with the guy.
But Ben has a plan, and since the actual ending of the true story wasn’t Hollywood enough (the kids just slowly realized they had to stop counting because they kept getting recognized), the end involves a chase through the back hallways of Planet Hollywood, complete with bag switching, limo kidnapping and shady deals made at gunpoint with the head of casino security (Laurence Fishburne, “The Matrix”). At the end you expect one of those “Where are they now?” montages, seeing as how this is based on a true story and, hell, they did it in “Alpha Dog.” But I guess real life wasn’t good enough for the producers, and it’s not impressive enough to say that the actual Ben Campbell, Jeff Ma, now owns his own fantasy sports company (go figure?) and is not some famous doctor who cured something after gambling his way into Harvard Med.
All in all, “21” tries to be more than it should be. The attempted coolness just comes off like a nerdy MIT kid thinking he’s the shit in a flashy Gucci suit. No need for this much glamour here, but a valiant try nonetheless.
At Quality 16 and Showcase