by Jeff Meyers
If all the hours of cable TV dedicated to poker have taught us one thing, it's that gaming tables are filled with unattractive people; or, rather, ordinary people. The Matt Damon and Reese Witherspoon doppelgängers are few. Nevertheless, these battles of strategy, luck and bluff draw millions of viewers.
In translating to the screen Ben Mezrich's bestseller Bringing Down the House, Hollywood egregiously transforms a gaggle of nerdy Asian MIT students into young, mostly white, OC clones. More than just calculated box-office racism, this craven choice to go with bratty no-names undermines fascinating aspects of the real-life story. Are studios are convinced that despite Kevin Spacey and Laurence Fishburne's presence, audiences will shun films that feature ethnic kids?
If that were 21's only problem, it wouldn't be enough to dissuade. But what's more disappointing is how writers Peter Steinfield and Allan Loeb let blackjack, rather than poker, be their guide. See, there's no bluffing in blackjack. The MIT kids who sought to break the bank in Vegas didn't even cheat. Instead, they used calculated number crunching and methodical card counting to make millions — great premise, but hardly an effective strategy for drama.
So as you watch the movie's MIT-meets-MTV plotline unfold, you can predict the screenwriting clichés to come; they're as mechanical as counting cards.
There's Ben Campbell (Jim Sturgess), the scruffy-handsome genius who's good enough to get into Harvard Med but too poor to cough up the tuition. Enter Mickey Rosa (Spacey), the darkly charismatic mentor, who invites Ben to join his posse of card-counting students in a plot to walk away with Vegas blackjack booty. There's the slim-bodied hottie (Kate Bosworth), who seduces Ben into enlisting then quickly falls for his earnest but soon-to-be corrupted demeanor. Of course, Ben loses control and 21 becomes a Faustian morality tale, where he (and, vicariously, we) must be punished for overindulging in glamorous high-roller fantasies ... by way of Fishburne's loss-prevention agent, who may as well be wearing a T-shirt that reads: formulaic external conflict.
Poker, with its ruthless cons, unexpected turns and lady-luck fickleness, would've been the better template. But that would've required ingenuity and wit, of which director Robert Luketic (Monster-In-Law) is in short supply. In fact, your first warning that 21 will disappoint is the appearance of blander-than-bland director Brett Ratner's name in the opening credits (he produced).
In all of its predictable and soulless glitz, the film still isn't terrible. Where 21 almost succeeds is in capturing the excitement and energy of the casino floor with glimpses into inner workings of card counting and blackjack psychology. You might not understand the math but there's an undeniable appeal to the students' mental high-wire act of nerves, improv and calculation. Too bad the characters are as stiff as the cards they play.
Worse, 21's cursed with an awful "tell" — you can spot each improbable plot turn from so far off that had the film been a poker player, it would've lost the pot before it finished its first drink.