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21

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[rating:3]
Director: Rob Luketic
Starring: Jim Sturgess, Kate Bosworth, Kevin Spacey, Laurence Fishburne

A bunch of MIT math whizzes are so good at counting cards that they go to Las Vegas every weekend to win big. Because casinos, ah, aggressively discourage card counters, they develop a team system that makes them harder to catch. Our main character is just a likable nerd who only wants to earn the money to afford Harvard Med, and maybe score with fellow scammer Kate Bosworth. 21-21.jpgHe has no idea that he’ll have to contend with embattled casino security officer Laurence Fishburne and his group’s sinister mastermind, MIT math prof. Kevin Spacey. In a high-stakes game of of-the-chart brain power and nerves of steel, can a poor young genius blah blah blah …?

The film has four things going for it: A very likable young cast, fairly tight direction from Rob Luketic (Legally Blonde), the glitz and glamour of Las Vegas, and toward the end there, Kate Bosworth in a little black dress and a Louise Brooks wig. These are not inconsiderable assets, but the more discriminating viewer may find they don’t outweigh skeletal writing with a perfunctory attention to plot logic.

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Why do our conspirators fly out to Vegas every weekend, logging maybe twelve hours’ travel time when Atlantic City is so much closer than Boston. Why, other than because Vegas makes for a flashier movie, that is. Why does the film hint at things that seem to matter, but never pay off, such as how an “opening” on the card-counting team opened to admit our hero, Ben (Jim Sturgess)? Why is there no significant character development to make key plot moments carry any weight? Why do the characters make a point of saying they need to use disguises in the casinos, but of the five kids in the scam, only the lovely Bosworth plays dressup (until the end, at least)?

Furthermore: Ben has a crush on Jill (Kate Bosworth) from a distance, but when they meet on the team, she resists his attentions as they become, apparently, “just friends.” Later, she gives him a mock lap dance in a strip bar and seduces him in a comped hotel suite, in a brief but sexy love scene. Why does she like him now? How do her father issues, touched on briefly, tie into Ben’s (his father died long ago), and into Kevin Spacey’s angry exhortation that he’s their business partner, “not your father”?

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21 is based on the book Bringing Down the House but, according to my screening companion who had read it, this barely qualifies as a loose adaptation. The movie has been glammed up, sexed up, beaten up and, inevitably, dumbed down—so if you’re a fan of the book, think twice before dropping ten bucks on the movie.

The whole film is sprinkled with stock plot points and character moments, but there’s no solidity. Kevin Spacey is smart but mysterious, because that’s what we need his character to be. Ben’s nerd friends back home (convincingly played by genuinely nerdy actors, instead of very pretty Hollywood faux-geeks) feel hurt at his unexplained absences, and we’re just supposed to accept that one blow up with them—over a science fair project—is enough to make him recklessly shatter his lucrative new life and create the damaging rift in his team that gets us to the third act. It’s all there, more or less, but it’s underwritten; sketched rather than fleshed out.

21-fishburne.jpgOf the grown-ups, Fishburne fares better than Spacey. Fishburne’s character is given more motivation and depth than is often seen in this potentially generic adversarial role. 21-spacey.jpgSpacey, on the other hand, should have more to do than he does. His trademark hardness are on display, but you wish they’d do more with his character and more with his range as an actor.

Still, like all good scam movies, 21 makes semi-criminal enterprise (we’re told card-counting isn’t illegal, yet apparently no one calls the cops when hotel security beats you bloody for doing it) look like a lot of fun, of the sort that involves designer shopping sprees and the kinds of high-end strip bars where none of the dancers look depressed, damaged or drug-addicted. There’s a final “big score” with some misdirection and twists that add a bit of tension if you don’t think about them too hard (they add moral and logical problems if you do, however), so it’s a fun date movie if you’re just trying to kill two hours between dinner and trying your own luck.