Saturday, April 5, 2008


If you look at your cineplex’s marquee, there isn’t a whole lot to pay attention to. And while 21 isn’t a showstopper, it may be the most entertaining time you can have at the movies right now.

Director Robert Luketic ditches his chick-flick tendencies (the man has done Legally Blonde, Win a Date with Tad Hamilton! and Monster-in-Law) in an attempt to give us a youthful, refreshing take on what is becoming a tired genre.

Filmmakers seem to be obsessed with this idea of card playing on screen. There have been a slew of these films over the past few years, and 21 isn’t much different from any of them. Loosely adapted from Ben Mezrich's best-selling book Bringing Down the House, 21 is the semi-true story of an MIT genius who was recruited by a teacher and fellow students to lead their operation of counting cards in black jack.

The movie doesn’t really explain how to count cards, but however it’s done, these kids seem to know what they’re doing. Every weekend they fly to Vegas to make (not steal or cheat, counting cards isn’t illegal) money, to fund their recent lavish lifestyles.

Promising newcomer Jim Sturgess plays math prodigy Ben who gets the attention of one of his professors, Micky Rosa (Kevin Spacey) by using his wit and timid charm. Rosa lets Ben in on his little secret, which includes four other MIT students. And soon they are off to the strip, raking in the money by the thousands.

Sturgess (Across the Universe) seems to be fusing together two of Matt Damon’s best characters. He has the charismatic ferocity of Will Hunting from, you guessed it, Good Will Hunting and the card playing skills and accountability of Mike McDermott (from Rounders). While I doubt this is intentional, Sturgess doesn’t sweat at playing the lead, always keeping us interested and focused. Spacey has a great time as Rosa, screaming at his pupils one minute and then staring them down, speaking calmly with much vindication the next. There is nothing like a steel-cold gaze from the eyes of Kevin Spacey.

Kate Bosworth sizzles as the beauty of the group, and the new love interest of Ben. Her Jill acts as Ben’s consciousness when he gets out of control. And there in lies the problem. 21, like most rags-to-riches stories, falls victim to the predictable arch of having everything, then losing it all. Some films can pull this off (Casino comes to mind) but Luketic is no Scorsese. Instead, we get bored watching the characters lose all their money, only to set up one final, climatic score. Laurence Fishburne as a strictly old-school security enforcer helps make the final showdown more exciting, but in the end 21 is probably exactly what you expect it to be. But right now, that ain’t such a bad thing. B

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