21 is a mini-Ocean’s Eleven about, and for, people who are the age of its title. In this true-life tale, MIT undergrad and mathematical genius Ben (Jim Sturgess) finds himself up against a wall—he doesn’t have $300,000 to attend Harvard Medical School, where he’s competing for a free-ride scholarship—until a solution magically materializes in the form of professor Rosa (Kevin Spacey). In his off-hours, Rosa works as the ringleader of a group of brilliant students who travel to Vegas on weekends and make crazy money counting cards at blackjack tables. Thus Ben goes from penniless dork with penniless dork friends to casino superstar with wads of cash and a babe girlfriend (Kate Bosworth). Director Robert Luketic goes for neither the gambling scene ambiance of Rounders nor the character-study pathos of Hard Eight, opting instead for as much Vegas flash as he can pack into his conventional tale of one’s man rise from nothing, fall from grace, and redemptive triumph. That it competently hits all its marks—the empathetic underdog hero, the comedic relief characters who are sorta-kinda amusing, Vegas’s sexy glitz—would be faint praise if not for the fact that so many likeminded studio efforts are wholesale incompetent. Nonetheless, this film, though diverting, is hardly worthy of entry into the pantheon of great movies about gambling, heists, scams, college, or pretty young people doing daring things, in part because Luketic grossly distends the action with a flabby, repetitive middle section. As befitting the script’s adherence to formula, Ben is (snooze) eventually corrupted by the wealth, status, and confidence that come from winning big. Yet the director’s perfunctory celebration of Sin City’s gaudy glamour—its enticing casino floors, swank suites, and moody strip clubs—is overstated to the point that any narrative tension or electricity is incapacitated by endless CG zooms in and around the blackjack table and its colorful chips. Sturgess handles his good guy-gone-temporarily-wrong role with proficiency, but 21 is ultimately so by-the-numbers that, like his cerebral protagonist, the audience is always one step ahead of the house.
- Robert Luketic
- Peter Steinfeld, Allan Loeb
- Jim Sturgess, Kevin Spacey, Kate Bosworth, Aaron Yoo, Liza Lapira, Jacob Pitts, Laurence Fishburne
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