21 / Daniel Carlson
Film Reviews | March 28, 2008 | Comments ()
I’m stunned at the amount of skill, determination, and plain hard work it must have taken to transform the real story of a group of kids who scam Las Vegas for millions of dollars into something as dull, trite, and uninvolving as 21. I mean, it’s based, however loosely, on things that really happened at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where a long-running group of current and former students pooled their mental firepower in a team-based ploy to count cards at blackjack. And they won. A lot. How do you make that boring? I can do nothing else but tip my hat to screenwriters Peter Steinfeld and Allan Loeb, who have taken a unique story and beaten it until it fit easily into a boring and predictable mold. But they also share the blame with director Robert Luketic, best known for Legally Blonde and Win a Date With Tad Hamilton! and whose marginal talents as a romantic comedy helmer melt away completely when faced with anything resembling drama, suspense, or characterization. Everything about 21 is a little too easy, even the ungainly double-crosses and change-ups that are tacked onto the screenplay as it makes its labored way across the finish line.
Ben Campbell (Jim Sturgess) is a handsome and affable kid who somehow wound up a nerd: He attends MIT, he usually wears plaid or what appears to be a Members Only jacket, and he hangs out with geeky best friends sent straight over from central casting, including the overweight, curly-haired kid with glasses who makes masturbation jokes. (It’s not that that character can’t be funny, just that he seems to have wandered in from a completely different movie.) Ben’s relationship with his friends is perfunctory and lifeless, existing simply because it does, with no underlying sense of chemistry or common desire or anything that would bring two people together; basically, it’s a mirror for the rest of the film. Ben’s mom works hard and wants to help support him, but Ben makes do with the meager salary he gets from working at a men’s clothing store. Ben and his friends spend their time hanging out, working on their robot for a contest, and wondering what it would be like to date Jill Taylor (Kate Bosworth), the pretty but inexplicably single girl who’s apparently saving herself for someone like Ben.
Ben’s also in a financial pickle: He’s been accepted to Harvard Medical School but has no idea how he’s going to come up with the $300,000 he’ll need to attend. But after impressing one of his professors, Mickey Rosa (Kevin Spacey), he gets tapped to attend a secret meeting of a club Mickey leads where the students learn how to count cards at blackjack. Mickey offers Ben the hard sell, and the tone of seduction in his voice almost gets Ben on board, but he balks. Mickey is weirdly forthcoming about the club’s nature: They practice counting cards, then take weekend trips to Las Vegas to put their skills to use. It’s unthinkable that Mickey would expose himself to the danger of recruiting Ben without knowing what his answer will be, especially since Mickey teaches entire courses devoted to variables and change, but that’s just the kind of movie 21 is: Hopeful that you don’t stop to think about how dumb most of it is.
However, Jill’s also on the blackjack team, and she pays Ben a visit and winds up persuading him to join the group after all. Aside from Mickey and Jill, there’s Choi (Aaron Yoo), the wacky one; Kianna (Liza Lapira), the other beautiful girl; and Fisher (Jacob Pitts), the current hotshot who will come to view Ben as competition before too long. Ben’s initiation consists of a lengthy training montage, but the fun of it all is lost in the fact that the system the team uses to count cards is never explained. Every card is given a rank of +1, -1, or 0, and it’s the player’s job to keep track of where the count is at, but Ben’s ever-present voice-over never bothers to explain whether a low or high count is good, or how the bets are increased or decreased, or what makes for favorable conditions, or really anything you would expect to be covered with even a modicum of attention. The rules of blackjack are mentioned briefly, and Luketic takes his time going over the various hand signals the team used to communicate table status to each other in the casino. But no one ever talks about how they made the money. They just used the system, somehow, and it worked.
On the other side of the equation is Cole Williams (Laurence Fishburne), an enforcer who works in “loss prevention” for various casinos and starts sniffing around the MIT team after noticing Ben on a winning streak. The script attempts to give Williams a kind of deadline meant to tighten up the drama in his subplot, in this case making Williams and his men compete with the encroachment of face-recognition software that would render them obsolete, but too little attention is given to the angle to make it meaningful. It’s worse than if Williams were just some two-dimensional bruiser out to stop the kids. He’s been fleshed out just enough to make it clear how little effort was made to make him or his story interesting.
The rest of the film unfolds as it almost must: Ben and Fisher butt heads, Ben makes a lot of money, Ben loses a lot of money, Ben questions the life he’s leading and the friends he’s abandoning even though it means getting rich and getting the girl. Sturgess and Bosworth do exactly what they were hired to do: Look good and give mildly dramatic line readings. They’re not bad actors, they just have nothing to work with. Even Spacey, a commanding performer, is dragged down a level by the story. What’s more, Luketic never seems sure of his footing, and the story’s weak attempts to impart a moral on Ben come across as empty because Ben manages to skirt any real danger, even if he doesn’t always come out financially ahead. A truer, more dramatic film would have seen Ben’s growing flirtation with greed and power and the price he would eventually pay for it, but the character’s arc remains flat because the filmmakers themselves never seem to get over the lure of Las Vegas, and the attraction of getting something for nothing. I’m doing my damnedest to resist the kind of atrocious pun that the film seems to demand, but here’s just one: 21 could have added up to something special, but it just wasn’t in the cards.
Daniel Carlson is the managing editor of Pajiba and a low-level employee at a Hollywood industry magazine. You can visit his blog, Slowly Going Bald.