There are actually a handful of films that I’ve never seen but occasionally think I have seen, because their cliché-ridden arcs were sketched in such detail in the trailers. (Yes, Two for the Money, I’m talking about you. Even though I never watched you, I hated the experience.)
The latest film to fall into this category is 21, a slick thriller about card-counting MIT students that opens tomorrow. So profound is my sense that the trailer (which I’ve seen several times) gives away the entire movie (which I haven’t yet seen at all) that I’m writing this review based solely on the former. (I used IMDb to get the characters’ names, but that’s about it for outside research.) I’ll catch a screening later to see how near or far from the mark I land, and will update this piece with an appropriate coda tomorrow. In the meantime, please note that any spoilers I may offer are entirely accidental.
Ben Campbell (Jim Sturgess) is one of the most talented math students at MIT. By day, he wows his professors with perfect test scores. Evenings (or maybe afternoons), he works in a menswear store, astounding the clientele with feats of multiplicative acumen. (One can’t help but imagine that, in real life, a salesman who calculated shoppers’ totals in his head--complete with tax and discounts!-- would be met less with awe than with mistrust: Yeah, right, let’s just see what the register says, shall we, sonny?) For all his gifts, though, Ben faces a dilemma stubbornly resistant to arithmetic: How does he parlay his meager income into the $300,000 he needs for school?
His answer arrives in the form of one Mickey Rosa (Kevin Spacey), a professor with a name like a gangster’s and a disposition to match. Wowed by Ben’s potential, Rosa invites him to take part in a little extracurricular project he’s been running on weekends: a team of students who count cards at blackjack in Vegas casinos. Ben is reluctant at first, but he does need the dough, and it’s not like they’re hurting anyone who can’t afford it. Besides, one of his prospective teammates is Jill (Kate Bosworth), a fetching coed whom he’s inspected from afar but never quite known how to approach. So Ben relents, with one condition: “$300,000 and then I’m out.” It’s a condition, of course, that soon falls by the wayside.
Director Robert Luketic (Legally Blonde) has fun with the intricate mechanics of the card-counting scheme--which, among other improbable elements, features hand signals as subtle as semaphore--and makes the most of his glittering Vegas venue with the usual aerial shots and steadicam swoops across casino floors. And for the first third of the movie or thereabouts, the plot clicks along at a brisk pace, as Ben and the gang pile innocent success upon innocent success.
But the neon buzz of Vegas, the thrill of the con, the series of cocktail dresses into which Jill pours her slender self--all gradually conspire to turn shy Ben into a smooth, self-involved player. “I’m not the same guy I was back in Boston,” he explains for anyone dim enough to have missed this by-the-numbers metamorphosis, complete with a sudden affinity for wearing sunglasses after dark. The game ultimately gets pushed too far, and Ben soon finds himself with a sack over his head, being brutally interrogated by a casino security boss (Laurence Fishburne), who has his own score to settle with Rosa.
From here, the plot of 21 (loosely based on Ben Mezrich’s nonfiction book Bringing Down the House) spins off in directions both predictable and preposterous. Good guys turn out to be bad guys; bad guys turn out to be not quite so bad after all. Ben wrests control of the card-counting team from Rosa, who responds with decidedly nonacademic vigor. Jill falls for the sweet, lovable Ben, only to wind up with the slick, opportunistic one. But never fear: There’s always time for a final, redemptive act.
By this point, though, we’ve endured at least one plot convolution too many--this is not a movie that should run to a little over two hours. Moreover, 21 never quite settles on a moral perspective: Like the (superior) lion’s den tale The Devil Wears Prada, the film can’t decide whether it wants to applaud its young protagonists’ skill or condemn the ends to which they apply it, and so alternates awkwardly between the two.
The London-born Sturgess at times exhibits the same sly, slightly bedraggled charm that he showed flashes of in Across the Universe, but he also has stretches of mopey coasting reminiscent of his less-successful turn in The Other Boleyn Girl. (His American accent, while adequate, never seems effortless.) As Jill, Bosworth knows how to catch the camera’s attention, but it’s not yet clear she knows what to do with it: She has the shimmer of a star, but not the gravity.
As for Spacey, who’s also a producer of the film, it’s beginning to seem that his brief run as a leading man (essentially from 1998’s The Negotiator to 2004’s Beyond the Sea) may turn out to be an anomaly in a longer career of casually commanding supporting roles, from deranged gangster Mel Profitt on “Wiseguy” (“Only the toes know”) to this turn as cinema’s most malevolent math professor. His wit is still as dry as sandpaper and his malice cool as tonic, but what he shows us here we’ve mostly seen before.
Had it set its sights a little lower, 21 might have succeeded as a light but likable diversion. But rather than settle for the easy pleasures of a con movie, it takes itself rather seriously, offering morals and melodrama of thudding obviousness. (No cheating at cards, you kids at home.) In the end, it’s a bit like Ocean’s Eleven--only without the stars, the glamour, and the recognition that, hey, it’s Vegas baby: We’re just here to have fun.
How accurate was I? Was 21 better than advertised? Worse? Totally different? Did I fail to anticipate the climactic showdown on a submarine or the twist where an erotically entangled Ben and Jill are revealed to be brother and sister? I’ll post an update tomorrow after actually seeing the film.
[Update: I was pretty accurate. The biggest surprise: It's even worse than I thought it'd be.]
Christopher Orr is a senior editor at The New Republic.