'21' Is Stuck With a Losing Hand

Greed isn't good. Or is it? The message is muddled in the tale of card-counting in Sin City (with Kate Bosworth and Jim Sturgess).
Greed isn't good. Or is it? The message is muddled in the tale of card-counting in Sin City (with Kate Bosworth and Jim Sturgess). (By Peter Iovino -- Columbia Pictures)
By Desson Thomson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 28, 2008

The movie "21" offers the appealing notion that success is just a matter of number crunching and calculation. Learn to count the cards in Vegas and you'll never hurt for money again.

Oh, wait, there's a corollary: You have to be an exceptional MIT student.

Welcome to a slick but resoundingly empty movie in which mental agility, beauty and brilliance are a sort of moral base line for the cast, which includes Jim Sturgess and Kate Bosworth, two performers who exude vigor, youth, beauty and gently buffed immortality.

The master of proceedings is Micky Rosa (Kevin Spacey), MIT professor by day, gambling entrepreneur by night, who recruits six of his best and brightest students -- very hush-hush and secret handshake -- to fly to Sin City on weekends and cheat themselves rich. (Well, technically, what they're doing isn't illegal, but management does have the right to escort you into the basement and beat you into a pulp -- as just about every movie on this subject, from "Casino" to "The Cooler," never fails to show.)

Like a junior "Mission: Impossible" team, they take mental note of the cards played and assess the probability of what will turn up next. And they communicate with one another in a language of subtle gesture and coded conversation. "This table is hot." "The heat is coming -- get out fast!" Then it's off to the hotel room to toast their haul, divvy up the payload, then head back to class.

But whose side are they on? Not ours. In fact, the group is such a secret society -- Skull and Bones with algorithm skills, arrogance and sexy hair -- that the audience feels completely left out. When they're not hot-dogging their academic chops before a beaming Micky in the classroom, they're plotting strategies to reap the financial rewards they believe their special talents deserve. And even though the movie presents them as American dreamers who stand up to The Man, it's hard to throw them a high-five.

It's easier to connect with the security goons (led by Laurence Fishburne) waiting to pinch them. At least those guys are wage earners, who believe in the dumb luck of whirring lemons, plums and bars.

The filmmakers seem to understand this potential disconnect but they don't solve the problem. Yes, Ben Campbell (Sturgess) is a sweet, lower-middle-class kid who has dreamed all his life of going from MIT to Harvard med, and who accepts Micky's invitation into the circle only to put himself through his dream school. Unfortunately, this characterization feels too saintly, too schematic. Nice guy at the tables! Learning the dark arts until his tuition bills are cleared! Will he learn the true path before they lead him into that dingy basement -- the one with the exposed pipes, the dripping water and the nasty guy with knuckle-dusters?

Sturgess's aw-shucks likability (which he demonstrated in "Across the Universe" and "The Other Boleyn Girl") offsets some of this hackneyed material, but intrinsic cuteness can only go so far. And Spacey, who always seems to make something of the worst roles, can't shoehorn his natural pep and alertness into that one-dimensional Machiavelli. His frustrated exertion is all we see.

The story may be based on real events -- Ben Mezrich's "Bringing Down the House: The Inside Story of Six M.I.T. Students Who Took Vegas for Millions," but most of it feels patently false. As directed by Robert Luketic ("Legally Blonde"), "21" is a parade of pretty faces enjoying the good life and encountering a few familiar setbacks, strategically placed before them like obstacles in a video game. We are sitting through too many unintended ironies -- a would-be parable about greed that emptily celebrates it, a drama about gifted people who are one-dimensional voids and, most laughable of all, a story about the giddiness of risk-taking that safely plays everything by the numbers. We are ready to cash in our chips.

21 (116 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG-13 for violence, nudity and sexual content.

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