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.