Monday, March 31, 2008

"21" Plays it By the Numbers


directed by Robert Luketic
starring Jim Sturgess, Kate Bosworth, Aaron Yoo, Liza Lapira, Kevin Spacey, Laurence Fishburne

Movies about high-stakes gambling should be the easiest sell in the world. By their very nature they carry a patina of risk and suspense, and offer a showcase for all types of personalities. How, then, do so many of them end up being so dramatically...inert? For every standout like “The Sting” or “Casino Royale,” there’s a watchable but quickly forgettable piece of disposable entertainment like “Rounders,” “Lucky You,” and, most recently, “21.” The basic problem is that gambling-centered flicks, like any other genre, tend to follow a standard formula that packs few real surprises and little character development. “21," unfortunately, is no exception.

Based on Ben Mezrich’s bestseller Bringing Down the House, “21” puts a Hollywood spin on the true story of a group of M.I.T. students who “took Vegas for millions” at the blackjack tables through a carefully orchestrated scheme of coordinated card counting. Not exactly a scam and certainly not illegal, the idea was that certain members of the team would play the table minimum while keeping count and give a signal when the table was hot, at which point the “big player” would swoop in for the kill. This method made it harder for the casinos to detect that counting was going on – but not always and not forever. And when they did find out, at least according to the movie, there was almost quite literally hell to pay.

That’s the raw material, plot-wise. Then there’s the spin, which packages this concept into more attractive bait for teen and young adult moviegoers. First step in the spin? Make the (originally Asian American) lead character, Ben, as white as the driven snow, and cast an up-and-coming young British heartthrob (Jim Sturgess, last seen serenading Evan Rachel Wood in “Across the Universe”) in the role.

Second step? Cast a bland blond as lead female – one whom most young adult males will recognize and think is hot, but who won’t break the budget. Kate Bosworth? Perfect!

Third step? To quiet any swelling murmur of protests at the whitewashing of the main character(s), cast not one but *two* Asian American actors as other members of the crack card counting squad, but make it clear they’re not as cool as the white characters, and don’t give them anything to do. (To reinforce the point, make Ben’s “big player” predecessor another white dude.) Oh, and be sure to make the Asian girl (Liza Lapira) cute and the Asian guy (Aaron Yoo) goofy.

Fourth step? Cast a big-but-not-too-big name who can pass the laugh test of believability as an M.I.T. math professor and the Wonder Kids’ coach. Smart-seeming, unctuous, potentially treacherous? Give Kevin Spacey a call. Oh, and while we’re at it, let’s see if we can’t get another “name” actor to anchor the cast and possibly draw in viewers over the age of 30. Someone plausible as a thug or “heavy." Hmm, how about Laurence Fishburne?

Fifth step? Throw all of the above into the blender marked “Vegas as it appears in the movies,” and set on high for quick cuts. Don’t forget to place a “_____ (insert game of choice) for Dummies“ lesson near the beginning, and go crazy with the obligatory montages of tense hands, low-cut dresses, ridiculous hotel suites, strip clubs, five-figure shopping sprees, and the Bellagio fountains. (Actually, I don’t even remember if the Bellagio fountains make an appearance in this movie. But it wouldn’t much matter whether they did or not.)

I don’t really mean to be too hard on “21”’s commercial packaging. For one thing, the movie is (intentionally) far too lightweight to merit any serious criticism. For another, none of the “sell” devices I make fun of are nearly as objectionable as the plodding, utterly predictable plot. I speak from the perspective of pure entertainment, not artistic, value. The first 20 or so minutes of setup—wherein we meet Ben, our protagonist, and learn Why He’s So Special (yawn) and Why He Needs a Lot of Money (double yawn)—are particularly tedious, the only redeeming feature (for me, anyway) being the nostalgia-inducing shots of the People’s Republic of Cambridge, MA, in winter.

Things pick up a little once Ben actually joins the team and starts making weekend trips to Vegas to try out his new talent. But even then, every step of his rise and fall is so prefab and so clearly telegraphed it’s impossible not to see each one coming at least half an hour in advance. (Spoilers ahead if you’ve never seen a movie before.) Shy Guy Gradually Comes Out of His Shell – check. Shy Guy Rises to Top – check. Shy Guy Becomes Less Shy, Gets Girl – check. No Longer Shy Guy Gets All Hubristic, Turns His Back on Old Life, and Sets Himself Up for a Fall – check. Hero Falls/Gets Screwed, Loses Girl – check. Hero Admits Hubris, Reembraces Old Life – check. Hero Turns Tables, Gets Reward, Girl, and Last Word – check.

There’s only one potentially shocking “twist” that the viewer might not anticipate – though I called it, at least partly – and its cleverness is balanced, if not outweighed, by some extremely clumsy plotting elsewhere. (Pet peeve: why does Ben insist on stashing his winnings in his dorm room rather than depositing it in a bank? Hint: For the sake of a later plot development!) Even the story’s framing device – involving Ben and an admissions officer at Harvard Medical School – is so transparent that the would-be-clever ending is no surprise, either, though it seems to be set up as one.

All that said, “21” isn’t devoid of entertainment value. Thanks largely to its cast of fresh faces, it manages to convey some of the infectious giddiness of lifelong model students being let loose to play hooky and live out their wildest fantasies. Ben isn’t a compelling or even a particularly sympathetic hero, but Sturgess is surprisingly credible as the onetime retiring geek who learns to swagger with the best of the high-rollers. Yoo and Lapira are appealing, particularly given what ciphers their characters are. Bosworth adds more shading and intelligence to the part of Ben’s dream girl than her previous roles would lead one to suspect. Spacey, alas, adds exactly the opposite: he’s by turns so flat and so hammy that when he turns up late in the movie in an outlandish disguise, he’s actually more convincing than he was playing it straight - sort of - as Ben’s coach and mentor.

In many ways, Fishburne’s casino security “consultant” and chief nemesis of the M.I.T. group is the most intriguing figure in the movie, partly because he comes across as genuinely enigmatic: what you see is not necessarily what you get. He also introduces a potentially interesting side story about the phasing out of his business (recognizing and ejecting cheaters and card counters) by new high-tech facial recognition software: it's the classic story of an analog guy in an increasingly digital age. But “21” doesn’t really go anywhere with this storyline, for obvious reasons: it’s a movie about pretty young things gambling to play the system and win it all, not an aging casino protector who’s gradually realizing he’s about to lose it all because the system has rendered him obsolete. The irony is that the latter would probably make for a far more absorbing and effective movie.



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