Hitting the deck
Seeing director Robert Luketic’s movie 21 is like taking a trip to Las Vegas without the heat. It has the glitz, the dazzle, the visual and aural overload, the edgy, jittery excitement of a windowless, electric casino floor. And like a weekend in Vegas, when it’s over, it all but evaporates from your mind—as if more a dream than a real experience. At least, once you pay for your ticket and take your seat, you’re playing with someone else’s money. So it’s a lot cheaper than jetting off to Nevada and gambling on your MasterCard.
Peter Steinfeld and Allan Loeb’s script is “inspired by” Ben Mezrich’s book Bringing Down the House, about a team of MIT math students who developed an elaborate system for counting cards at Vegas blackjack tables and ran their winnings up to $4 million before the casino guys got wise (“inspired,” perhaps, in the sense that The Scarlet Letter with Demi Moore was inspired by Nathaniel Hawthorne). Jim Sturgess plays Ben Campbell, a math dweeb poised to graduate from MIT and enter Harvard Medical School—if he can land an important scholarship that will pick up the $300,000 tab. But his chances don’t look good; the professor interviewing him compliments Ben on his “impressive” academic record, but it’s pretty faint praise. Ben had better come up with a whopper of an application essay if he wants to stand out from the crowd of 4.0 GPAs on the professor’s desk.
Just about then, as luck would have it, a brilliant comment in one of his math classes brings Ben to the attention of the professor, Micky Rosa (Kevin Spacey). One night, studying in the library, Ben is summoned to a darkened classroom where Micky introduces him to his top-secret card-counting team and invites him to join. Ben demurs. But when another team member, campus hottie Jill Taylor (Kate Bosworth) turns on the charm (and with his odds on that scholarship looking longer than ever), he reconsiders and signs on. Ben quits his part-time job, blows off two pals with whom he’s been working on a science project, and from then on, his mind is all blackjack, all the time.
At this point the movie itself becomes a bit of an elaborate card trick, as Luketic and company treat us to a flashy montage of Ben’s extracurricular education: The cards! The numbers! The signals! Crossed arms mean “the table’s hot.” Scratching the corner of your eye means “we need to talk.” Fingers through the hair means “Get out now.” After a dry run to a back-alley Chinatown card room, Ben passes the test—“What’s the number? What’s the number?!” “Um … um … 18!”—and is welcomed to the team.
When the location shifts to Vegas, we can sense everybody’s joy at finally getting away from those dull halls of ivy back east. And not just the characters, but everybody—the actors, the director, cinematographer Russell Carpenter, editor Elliot Graham. And even the audience, for that matter, because the shift means the movie finally brings Laurence Fishburne aboard, playing Cole Williams, an old-school casino security consultant whose seat-of-the-pants methods begin turning up something amiss that has escaped the casino’s newfangled security software.
The movie’s trickery, like that of most magic acts, doesn’t bear up under trained scrutiny. Somehow, Ben’s team’s community-theater disguises go unpenetrated, the fact that they share a hotel suite undetected, their semaphoric signals unnoticed until it can serve to goose up the suspense. The challenges of counting cards in a six-deck shoe are sloughed off with some quick mumbo jumbo about high cards, low cards and numbers, as if to say, “OK, got all that? Now … ”
But just as a Vegas casino is designed to make you think about anything—the noise, the lights, the music, the great boobs on that cocktail waitress—anything but all the money you’re losing, 21 is designed to make you think about anything but the gilded crock of a story you’re being handed. And, in its way, it works, right through the double- and triple-cross twists in the last act and the simpering punch line tacked on at the tail end. Empty calories, yes, but tasty enough.
Then it’s over and almost instantly forgotten. Sometimes, what happens at the movies stays at the movies.