“21” is a casino-caper film in the tradition of “Oceans 11,” only this time the outlaws are MIT students doing what most of us would do shamelessly if we had their mathematical aptitude.
The gang of geeks who here don’t look geeky at all is led by a cynical professor played with more than a dash of malevolence by Kevin Spacey. The prime player is Ben Campbell (Jim Sturgess), a sort of everyman student, living with a hard-working mom who cannot afford to pay for Harvard Medical School, but still offers him a check for a measly $68,000, her life savings. It’s perhaps enough to pay for a semester or two, buy books and perhaps a few beers every weekend.
Off to Vegas
Whose heart would not go out to a mom and her boy, who is seduced not only by the promise of what amounts to a full-ride gambling scholarship but by the presence of Jill, a beautiful numbers woman played by Kate Bosworth? So off to Vegas they go: Jim, Jill, Chou and Kianna, staked by Spacey’s Professor Mickey Rosa, who holes up in a suite orchestrating the escapades with the gusto of a cool, merciless conductor who will accept no mistakes from his players.
It’s a symphony of signals, accented by a spartan absence of emotion. Jill sits at a black jack table, and when the deck is hot with a large number of face cards, she folds her hands behind her back, summoning Ben, who begins to lay down bundles of $500 chips. A stroke of the hair indicates danger, which eventually arrives with the presence of a former card counter and casino hit man, played by Laurence Fishburne, who has no compunctions about bloodying the face of a transgressor.
Based on “Bringing Down the House,” a true story penned by Ben Mezrich, “21” is more interesting to contemplate than it is to experience. The reason, I believe, is that like a player afraid to double down even if he is holding an 8 and 3, Australian director Robert Luketic (“Legally Blonde” and “Win a Date with Tad Hamilton”) prefers not to gamble but to play it safe. He places a cool, compelling story within the trappings of a conventional narrative: friendly, likable thieves, tough boss, lurking villain ready to beat their brains in, and a final twist.
He and his team of writers Hollywoodize it even more by presenting us with a love tryst between Jim and Jill. The latter’s character is based loosely on Jane Willis, a brain whiz not from MIT but from Harvard. A fleeting perusal of her conservative background suggests her character would be interesting to flesh out. Instead, we get the background of only one of the students, another sign of the movie’s reluctance to gamble with a more complex narrative.
Though it is not easy to accomplish, it seems to me that “21” might have done a more thorough job of detailing the numbers theory. But perhaps distrustful of our numerical intelligence, the filmmakers are content to pile on clichéd close-ups of cascading chips, frequent visits to their mentor’s suite, and detailed accounts of lavish spending sprees, followed by a twist straight out of “The Sting.”
With its novel story and unlikely protagonists, “21” holds our interest, but because it does not take chances, it entertains without fully engaging our emotions or intellect with a sufficient degree of sophistication.
DIRECTED BY Robert Luketic
SCREENPLAY BY Peter Steinfeld and Allan Loeb
STARRING Jim Sturgess, Kevin Spacey, Kate Bosworth, Aaron Yoo, Liza Lapira, Laurence Fishburne and Sam Golzari
RUNNING TIME: 122 minutes