When Ben Campbell (Sturgess) learns that Harvard Medical School will cost $300,000 for tuition, room, and board, he sees no possible way of paying the bill. While studying one night, he is approached by Jason Fisher (Jacob Pitts) who invites him into the secret world of Professor Micky Rosa's (Spacey) card-counting club. With an elaborate system of formulas, buzzwords, and signals, Rosa and his students have been hitting Las Vegas on weekends and winning big. They now want Ben to join their clandestine cabal. At first, he says no. But thanks to the seductive sway of juicy Jill Taylor (Bosworth), Ben acquiesces. Soon, he is leading the group toward untold riches -- and the investigative glare of casino security agent Cole Williams (Laurence Fishburne).
With its insider track, specialized skill, and beat-the-system sentiment, 21 is desperate to be a cracking cautionary tale for the Hard Rock Cafe crowd. Instead, it's a middling entertainment that gets a lot of mileage out of very little cinematic star power. Somewhere buried in all the glitterati shots of neon-streaked avenues and polished gambling pits, the comp suite spaces, and hallowed halls of advanced learning is a truly amoral romp about cheating to achieve material gains. While Spacey's Micky makes it very clear that there is nothing inherently illegal about card counting, Fishburne's got a series of scary rings on his fist that says different. One of them is right, and it's this ethical quandary that consistently subverts the film's narrative strides.
In fact, the vast majority of 21 plays like an overlong lecture in ethics class. Sturgess is viewed as both a wide-eyed innocent and an easily-directed huckster. One moment he's concerned about doing the right thing. The next he's foaming at the mouth to make another trip to the Blackjack tables. He does incredibly dumb things -- hiding tons of cash in his ceiling, ignoring his overly curious friends -- for such a smart guy, and his motivational shifts are so severe that we never get a clear handle on his goals. It's the same with everyone else in the film. Spacey seems poised between villain and Svengali, in it for the money and/or the interpersonal manipulation. Bosworth blossoms when she works the dealers undercover, but seems strangely one-dimensional when purely acting the student.
With Fishburne all firebrand bluster, and everyone else neatly falling into the background, 21 trips and stumbles toward its inevitable showdown/switcheroo finale. If you can't see the last 30 minutes as one elongated ruse, you haven't been to a mainstream movie in quite a while. Indeed, director Robert Luketic (of Legally Blonde and Monster-In-Law fame) borrows too many cinematic chestnuts from the formula film vault, missing many opportunities to make this material more electric and engaging. What we end up with is a genial, generic effort attached to an intrinsically interesting premise. This is one case where, no matter the bet, no one wins -- not the audience nor the artists involved.
Not quite Atlantic City.
Run time: 123 mins
In Theaters: Friday 28th March 2008
Box Office USA: $81.2M
Box Office Worldwide: $69.8M
Distributed by: Sony/Columbia Pictures
Production compaines: Columbia Pictures, Relativity Media
Contactmusic.com: 2.5 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 36%
Fresh: 59 Rotten: 106
IMDB: 6.8 / 10
Director: Robert Luketic
Screenwriter: Ben Mezrich, Peter Steinfeld, Allan Loeb
Starring: Jim Sturgess as Ben Campbell, Kevin Spacey as Micky Rosa, Kate Bosworth as Jill Taylor, Aaron Yoo as Choi, Liza Lapira as Kianna, Jacob Pitts as Fisher, Laurence Fishburne as Cole Williams, Jack McGee as Terry, Josh Gad as Miles, Sam Golzari as Cam, Helen Carey as Ellen Campbell, Jack Gilpin as Bob Phillips, Ben Campbell as Kartengeber
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