21 (United States, 2008)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

21 is a perfect example of how something that's "based" on a true story can nevertheless exist mainly in the realm of fiction. While it's true that the source material for the movie, Ben Mezrich's Bringing Down the House relates events that actually happened, screenwriters Peter Steinfeld and Allan Loeb have fictionalized the entire story, leaving intact only the central idea that a group of MIT students devised a card-counting scheme that allowed them to fleece the Vegas casinos. And, while I'm firm believer in the adage "Never let the truth get in the way of a good story, " 21 doesn't spin a good enough yarn to justify all the changes. In fact, when one character indicates to another that he started out smart then got sloppy and stupid, he might have been referring to the script.

Our "entry point" into 21 is Ben Campbell (Jim Sturgess), a graduating MIT senior who has already been admitted to Harvard Med School. There's a problem, though: Ben can't raise the needed $300,000 (never heard of student loans, I guess) and his chances of getting a "free ride" scholarship appear slim. Along comes Professor Micky Rosa (Kevin Spacey), who brings with him a too good to be true offer: a space has opened up on his "team" and he's offering it to Ben, one of the most gifted mathematical minds he has encountered during his time teaching at MIT. The "team" is a group of five students who visit Las Vegas regularly and put into effect a sophisticated card-counting scheme that the casinos have been unable to break. Initially, Ben refuses, but the allure of Harvard Med plus his attraction to Jill Taylor (Kate Bosworth), one of Micky's special students, pulls him in. After a local initiation, it's off to Sin City for Ben's official induction. There, waiting to match wits with him is Cole Williams (Laurence Fishburne), the head of security at Planet Hollywood.

The idea behind 21 is compelling - tell how a group of college kids beat one of the most sophisticated anti-crime systems in place anywhere around the world. Unfortunately, the problem is with the execution. Perhaps because there's math involved, 21 doesn't do an effective job of providing the bare-bones details of how the crime is pulled off. It hedges and cheats and employs lots of quick edits but we don't get anything close to a coherent description of what the kids' methods are. It doesn't take long before the film relegates the heist elements to the background so it can focus on clich├ęd interpersonal relationships, including a tepid romance between Ben and Jill. Finally, the movie ends with a series of Hollywood staples, including a chase and a "twist" that won't surprise anyone.

21 is yet another instance of Hollywood dumbing-down smart people. In order to pull off something as audacious and successful as what the MIT students did, they had to be geniuses. Yet, as portrayed in the movie, they're ineffectual blunderers. Some of the things they do are so stupid that they're insulting. Of course these characters are eventually going to get caught doing these sorts of things. How could they not? Audiences enjoy watching heist movies where the characters are two steps ahead (not two steps behind) and where the narrative provides some surprises. Neither characteristic is evident here. And, in addition, the resolution has an unpleasant "have your cake and eat it" quality. The fingerprints of those demanding a Hollywood ending are all over this screenplay.

Jim Sturgess, who has survived the Beatles debacle Across the Universe relatively unscathed, gives a nice turn as shy Ben, who gradually emerges from his shell as he gains more confidence in his newfound skills. It's a familiar character arc but Sturgess' performance allows us to buy into it. Kevin Spacey provides his customary intensity; he's fun to watch even when he's not in peak form. His Superman Returns co-star, Kate Bosworth, isn't as successful. Her performance is wooden and she and Sturgess don't click as a couple. Laurence Fishburne is wasted in a stereotypical thug role and no one else has enough lines to be worth mentioning. The supporting characters in 21 truly are one-dimensional.

Another disappointing aspect of 21 is its sluggish pace. The high-energy Vegas setting doesn't increase the wattage of the production. The movie is a little over two hours in length but feels longer. Some of the movie's last-act "action" sequences have been inserted primarily as a way to liven things up, but they're so pointless and derivative that all they do is drag out the running length. (Are we really supposed to be thrilled by scenes of Sturgess and Bosworth being chased by bad guys through a series of casino kitchens?) When it comes to the other two heist movies currently playing in theaters, The Bank Job and Flawless, the only advantage one could attribute to 21 is the youth of its cast. When judged on the basis of story, excitement, surprises, and character development, 21 comes in a distant third.

21 (United States, 2008)

Run Time: 2:03
U.S. Release Date: 2008-03-28
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Violence, Profanity, Sexual Situations)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1