Movie Information

The Story: Mathematically inclined M.I.T. students set out to break the bank in Las Vegas by counting cards -- with help from their dubious math professor. The Lowdown: So-so drama and clichés abound in this fact-based yarn loosely adapted from a popular nonfiction book.
Genre: Drama
Director: Robert Luketic
Starring: Jim Sturgess, Kate Bosworth, Kevin Spacey, Laurence Fishburne, Aaron Yoo, Jacob Pitts
Rated: PG-13

Alternately rather dull or very silly, Robert Luketic’s 21 is the latest in the seemingly endless procession of fact-based movies where facts aren’t allowed to get in the way of the Hollywoodization of the story. The code phrase for “having only the slightest connection to the truth” this round is “inspired by.” I have a personal preference for “suggested by,” but it’s a small difference.

Considering the source book turned the real-life Asian Jeffrey Ma (who has a cameo in the film) into the Anglicized Kevin Lewis, it’s perhaps excusable that he is further transformed for the movie from Kevin Lewis into Ben Campbell (Jim Sturgess, Across the Universe). Whether that also explains why the movie ups the character sympathy is another matter. In the film, Ben is a poor boy just wanting to get enough money to go to Harvard Medical School, who ends up veering off onto the wrong path when success and money go to his head. (This sets up a painfully obvious plot device that my colleague Justin Souther pegged in the first reel.) All this results in a lot of attractive people standing in for real-life nerds, and a plot that knows all the clichés and isn’t afraid to use them.

As the film stands, we have math-whiz Ben being recruited into a group of other math-whiz kids by shady M.I.T. professor Micky Rosa (Kevin Spacey), whose plan is to make a mint at Las Vegas casinos by counting cards—a legal but definitely frowned upon system for beating the house. Drama—such as it is—surfaces in the personal jealousies within the group and in the guise of Vegas security-specialist Cole Williams (Laurence Fishburne), who figures out what’s going on and takes a hand (or rather a fist) in bringing it to a stop.

There’s also sub-drama, which involves Ben losing touch with his “real friends” (the movie’s sop to actual nerd-dom) as he goes further and further into moral dubiety. And, of course, there’s the requisite romance to be factored in between Ben and Jill Taylor (Kate Bosworth). There’s a plot twist—maybe even two—though it’s pretty obvious, since it’s built on cutting away from a scene at a crucial moment.

Director Robert Luketic is definitely more at home with comedy than with moderately serious drama, and he is close to hopeless when it comes to trying to glamorize Las Vegas. Just compare the almost transcendent beauty of the penultimate scene from Steven Soderbergh’s Ocean’s Eleven (2001) with the Bellaggio fountains “choreographed” to Debussy’s “Claire de Lune” with a view of those same fountains here. Setting aside the geographical question of how one looks down into the courtyard of the Bellagio from a window in a suite identified as being in Planet Hollywood, the fountains in this film are just so much trickling water by comparison. Furthermore, the heavy reliance on one casino setting and one bar imbues 21 with a cheap feeling that can’t have been what was intended.

Then there’s David Sardy’s score, which at times amusingly undercuts the drama. Particularly funny are the organ rumblings that accompany a scene between Ben and Jill in the clothing store where he works. It sounds for all the world like there must be a church next door—or perhaps the Phantom of the Opera is hiding beneath the changing rooms. Since card playing doesn’t in itself make for tense drama, I suppose it made sense to accompany the cards landing on the table with explosive sounds, but this effect becomes predictable and chuckle-inducing pretty fast.

The cast does what it can with the material, which is to say that Sturgess’ American accent is credible enough and no one blows their lines or trips over the furniture. It can be argued that 21 isn’t bad for what it is, but what it is isn’t anything to brag about. And regardless of its authenticity, the phrase “Winner, winner, chicken dinner” stands out in my mind as the worst opening line in a movie ever. Rated PG-13 for some violence and sexual content, including partial nudity.

About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress from December 2000 until his death in June 2016. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

Before you comment

The comments section is here to provide a platform for civil dialogue on the issues we face together as a local community. Xpress is committed to offering this platform for all voices, but when the tone of the discussion gets nasty or strays off topic, we believe many people choose not to participate. Xpress editors are determined to moderate comments to ensure a constructive interchange is maintained. All comments judged not to be in keeping with the spirit of civil discourse will be removed and repeat violators will be banned. See here for our terms of service. Thank you for being part of this effort to promote respectful discussion.

3 thoughts on “21

  1. About halfway through this thing I was hoping for a “David Mamet Ending” where the protagonists managed to pull off a triple-cross, but I knew that any team of writers who take as many factual liberties as they did with this adaptation wouldn’t be that clever.

    But it was that hope that kept me in my seat at Cinebarre. That and the Chicken Run pizza.

  2. Ken Hanke

    “About halfway through this thing I was hoping for a “David Mamet Ending” where the protagonists managed to pull off a triple-cross”

    A reasonable proposition. Personally, I was hoping that Jim Sturgess would burst into a Beatle song or two. Alternatively, I would have settled for the whole thing to have been a convoluted plan born of Spacey’s desire to bear Sturgess’ children. There are all sorts of possibilities that would have improved this. Hell, I’d have settled for them cutting out 30 minutes of footage.

    Side note: the trailer was a lot more clever with the business or writing Sturgess’ mathematical figuring on the screen during the clothing store scene. That’s pretty sad.

  3. John A. Miller

    What was with all those sceanes in strip clubs? And the group kept going to the same casinos over and over again, now is that smart considering what they are doing? Why not go to Atlantic City on the weekends instead of all the way to Vegas from the Boston area, would have made more sence. This is just one big commercal for the Hard Rock and Planet Hollywood hotels and Strip clubs.

Leave a Reply

To leave a reply you may Login with your Mountain Xpress account, connect socially or enter your name and e-mail. Your e-mail address will not be published. All fields are required.