Thursday, March 27, 2008

21: Flawed count

21 (2008) • View trailer for 21
3.5 stars (out of five). Rating: PG-13, for violence, profanity and brief sensuality
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 3.27.08
Buy DVD: 21 • Buy Blu-Ray: 21 (+ BD Live) [Blu-ray]

This film is as slick, dazzling and superficial as its Las Vegas setting.

Although ostensibly based on the events reported in Ben Mezrich's fascinating book, Bringing Down the House, credulous viewers should be advised that the film's press notes more accurately acknowledge that 21 is inspired by a true story.
When Ben (Jim Sturgess, far left) accepts an invitation for some extracurricular
activities organized by math professor Micky Rosa (Kevin Spacey, far right),
he's astonished to find a blackjack training session already occupied by Vegas
veterans: from left, Fisher (Jacob Pitts), Kianna (Liza Lapira) and Jill (Kate
Bosworth). The goal? Take the casinos for a bundle, thanks to a clever
card-counting scheme.

Which would explain why Peter Steinfeld and Allan Loeb's script eventually devolves into a Hollywood fairy tale, complete with a ludicrous tag scene that certainly gets the intended laugh, even if it couldn't possibly exist in the real world.

(I suspect Steinfeld and Loeb greatly admire 1983's Risky Business, since I detect an echo of Tom Cruise's concluding speech in their protagonist's final words.)

All of which is a shame, because the first act of director Robert Luketic's captivating little drama feels very real-world. Star Jim Sturgess is spot-on as Ben Campbell, a shy, geeky and quite brilliant MIT student whose acceptance to Harvard Medical School — absolutely his, on the basis of academic merit — is in danger of being derailed because he lacks the money to attend. Sturgess is completely persuasive as an honorable individual with his eye on the prize, who simply cannot understand why years of hard work haven't been enough.

Scenes with his mother (Helen Carey) are heartfelt and sweet; companionable exchanges with his two similarly nerdy best friends (Josh Gad and Sam Golzari) are appropriately outcast-ish. The three bookworms — they've been designing a robotic vehicle for the past year, in anticipation of an annual contest — look yearningly at the cooler guys and hot chicks when enjoying a beer or two at the local watering hole, which is as close to being part of the "in crowd" as they're likely to get.

Then Ben catches the attention of charismatic math professor Micky Rosa (Kevin Spacey), who recruits the young man to join his rather unorthodox team of similarly gifted numbers crunchers. Micky and his crew have been taking trips to Vegas for an unspecified amount of time — vague and sloppy details often plague this script — and winning big bucks while playing blackjack with a card-counting scheme.

They're currently short one member, and Micky offers the empty slot to Ben.

But Ben respectfully declines, even after realizing that one of the other students is Jill Taylor (Kate Bosworth), the hottie he has worshipped from afar for quite some time. (Goodness, what were the chances?) It all sounds too high-flying and uncertain to our scholarly young hero, and this is a reasonable response, based on the character Sturgess has established up to this point.

Needless to say, he eventually changes his mind, although we're never quite sure what prompts the shift.

The subsequent training sessions are quite clever and skillfully edited — Elliot Graham, take a bow — as Ben learns card-counting and memorizes the code words by which one of the team's conservatively betting "spotters" will convey the count once a table gets "hot."

The key words are quite logical — "cat" for plus 9, "sweet" for plus 16, and so forth — and a subtle signal will bring the team's "big player" over to the table, at which point a casual remark ("This drink is too sweet!") will bring the newcomer up to speed.

Ben, forever cool under pressure, is assigned to be a "big player," which immediately sets up an ego-related conflict with the team's other top gun, Fisher (Jacob Pitts).

These assigned roles are likely to raise viewer eyebrows, particularly since Micky more than once insists that Jill and the team's other female member, Kianna (Liza Lapira), are good for nothing more than spotting. Indeed, this story's sexism is palpable, and both Bosworth and Lapira become little more than attractive accessories. If there's some legitimate reason that a high-rolling female player might appear more suspicious to casino security, we're certainly never told.

The film's second act could be subtitled "Seduction of the Innocent," as Ben gradually succumbs to the glitz and glamour of his weekend excursions, much to the dismay of his now neglected former friends. Ben insists he's only in until he raises the $300,000 he needs for tuition, and Micky smiles indulgently: The devil knows the power of temptation.

This portion of the story begins well, but soon troublesome plot points begin to surface.

Jill, for example, rebuffs Ben's inevitable pass, quite intelligently pointing out that good teamwork demands focus and objectivity. But not that much later, she changes her mind — because this is a movie, and therefore she must — with as little explanation as that supplied for Ben's having joined the team in the first place.

Logically, the ferociously controlling Micky also should frown on such fraternization, and yet he does nothing to discourage it. Indeed, he never even mentions it. That's out of character: Spacey makes Micky a smiling predator with a reptilian grin and a shark's single-mindedness. As ruthlessly as he insists upon total obedience from his crew, I cannot believe he'd so casually accept the equivalent of an obviously distracting office romance.

Other stupid stuff pops up, none worse than Ben's ill-advised place of concealment for his accumulated winnings. What, the kid never heard of a safety deposit box? This behavior prompted an audible grown from last week's preview audience, which clearly resented being manipulated in so blatantly contrived a manner.

Danger and dramatic tension are supplied by casino enforcer Cole Williams (Laurence Fishburne, understated and quite effective), whose trained eyes and sixth sense are about to be replaced by computer imaging software. Cole's once-thriving business is hemorrhaging casino clients, so he's anxious to demonstrate his value by finding and nailing a cheater.

Which shouldn't be difficult, since the so-called "subtle" signals used by Jill and Kianna are blindingly obvious.

(We're repeatedly told that card-counting isn't cheating, and yet Williams and his goons will beat the crap out of anybody they catch doing it. One wonders why those pummeled don't file police reports for assault and battery.)

We're therefore set up for the third and concluding act, during which logic, reasonable behavior and previously established character traits are abandoned completely. Ben and everybody else cease to feel authentic, and instead become movie props.

That'll be fine for viewers eager to embrace a storyline that suddenly becomes a junior-level Ocean's Eleven, but rather disappointing for those who've grown attached to Sturgess' principled young scholar.

Luketic occasionally indulges in camera trickery: sometimes successfully, other times not so much. He brilliantly conveys the passage of time, during Ben's first all-nighter at a casino; everybody else slides into ultra-fast motion, while our hero's calmness under pressure is conveyed by his slower, real-time movement.

On the other hand, the film opens with a frankly obnoxious montage of giant playing cards and thundering power chords from composer David Sardy's soundtrack, all backed by Sturgess' dazzling off-camera narration, and resembling a rock video that escaped from MTV. Since this is an energized distortion of Ben's character that we haven't met yet, it's a bit disconcerting when the story begins with his calmer and gentler self.

All these issues would mean less if the film consistently resided in the clearly fanciful realm of George Clooney's escapades as Danny Ocean. But Steinfeld and Loeb set us up, in their first act, for a real-world narrative and characters who resonate as real people.

As superficial stuff and nonsense, 21 is a reasonably engaging two-hour experience. But I really liked Ben as initially portrayed, along with his family dynamic and interactions with his two geeky friends.

Luketic's film loses something when it accelerates into high gear, and that's sad.

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