Thursday, April 03, 2008

Count on '21' for a decent time at the movies

“21,” the fact-based story of a group of M.I.T. students who took Vegas for all it was worth by putting their brilliant minds to use counting cards in blackjack, is a good movie that could’ve been great. Much like sin city itself, it has style and attitude to spare, but lacks substance.

Based on the book “Bringing Down the House,” “21” focuses on Ben Campbell (Jim Sturgess, “Across the Universe”), the new guy on a team of M.I.T. students who under the tutelage of one of their professors (Kevin Spacey) have learned a system of counting cards, word associations and hand gestures that allows them to go under the radar while taking Vegas for big money.

Of course, there are complications. The team’s former hot shot (Jacob Pitts, “EuroTrip”) becomes jealous of Ben, and, in one of the movie’s best scenes, attempts to blow Ben’s cover in a manner that is oh-so-satisfyingly clever.

There is also a security officer (Laurence Fishburne, “The Matrix") who is onto their counting ways. Although counting cards isn’t illegal, the casinos certainly do frown upon it. You don’t want to be taken into a back room by Fishburne, that’s for sure.

It wouldn’t be fair to the rest of the cast to say this is Spacey’s film, but he does dominate in every scene he is in. Few working actors can do this kind of fast-talking, slimy intellectual character as well as Spacey. He is given the film’s the best dialogue and he delivers it with flavor and gusto that is a joy to behold. When Spacey enters the game toward the end, you can't help but grin.

Fishburne, the other veteran of the cast, also adds a necessary weight to the film. He brings a genuine sense of threat to the proceedings. Sturgess’ Ben is the main character and he carries the film nicely. In only his second lead role following “Across the Universe,” Sturgess is developing into a talent to watch. He has a low-key charm and an innate likeability.

Unfortunately, Ben's other team members are not developed into full characters. Kate Bosworth’s (“Superman Returns”) Jill gets the second most screen time of the younger cast members, but is only required to be a love interest. Aaron Yoo, who provided solid comic relief in last year’s “Disturbia,” is asked to do the same here but isn’t given enough of a chance to do so. Laughs are also supplied by Ben’s friends back at M.I.T., played by Jack Black look-alike Josh Gad and Sam Golzari (“American Dreamz”). Their antics play like a PG-13 version of “Superbad.”

The film fascinates when it focuses on the mechanisms of the system these kids use to run their scam. On that level the film works as a con movie with team members taking on different identities and playing their specific roles in the con. Director Robert Luketic (“Legally Blonde”) brings a flashy, CGI-enhanced look to the blackjack table that keeps things exciting.
Things are also fun when the film looks at the double life of the characters, who are brainy students during the week and Vegas big shots on the weekend. This aspect isn’t explored enough as the film goes into plot auto pilot.

Ben swears he’s only in it to get $300,000 for grad school and then he is out, but can he resist the temptations of Vegas? Of course he can’t, but will be redeem himself? Of course he will, and telling you this by no means spoils the film. The trajectory of Ben’s character is no surprise, and at times the film doesn’t even try to hide the fact that it is relying on a basic story template.

While the characters are counting cards, you in the audience can count clichés. By the time Ben tells Jill that “I’ve lost it all. I don’t want to lose you too,” the more cynical in the audience may just throw their hands up in the air.

Moments like that make “21” seem like a bad bet, but for every clumsily written scene there are two that are sharply put together with some real wit. Two-to-one odds aren’t too bad, so as you cash your chips in it has overall been a good day at the movies with “21.”

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