"21" doesn't offer a winning hand

April 2, 2008, midnight | By Monica Wei | 14 years, 4 months ago

Adaptation of true story becomes trite on the big screen

A high stakes game in a story that has already shown itself to sell – perfect material for an interesting movie, thought producers. Unfortunately, the movie package for "21" turned the true story into a bland and uninteresting mess on the big screen.

Ben Campbell (Jim Sturgess), a genius who will graduate MIT with top honors, has been admitted to Harvard Medical School. Sadly, he has a job that pays eight dollars an hour and needs to find a way to come up with $300,000. He desperately wants a scholarship that offers a free ride to Harvard Med, but is told that he needs to truly "dazzle" and "jump off the paper." Ben impresses Professor Mickey Rosa (Kevin Spacey), who offers him a spot on his card-counting blackjack team and a way to make lots of money - which Ben reluctantly agrees to (but only for med school, he swears). The gender-balanced blackjack team flies to Las Vegas every weekend and rakes in the cash, until they catch the attention of casino security specialist Cole Brown (Laurence Fishbourne).

The story, based on the real story of MIT student Jeff Ma whose blackjack team made millions off of the casinos of Vegas, has the potential to be suspenseful and engaging. Unfortunately, this story that translated into a best-selling book lacks suspense and thrill on the big screen. The oversimplified script contains all the typical Hollywood generalities and lacks the complexities that would have made the story compelling.

The movie manages to skimp on details on every end, leaving nearly all aspects of the plot weak and underdeveloped. Ben's blackjack lessons consist of a few fleeting montages, and the film never actually explains how counting cards leads to winning at blackjack. "Don't give in to your emotions," Mickey tells his team, as they use simple math to beat the system.

Sadly, Mickey's advice sets the tone for "21." Every member of the blackjack seems to have taken his instructions too far, and wipe all the expression from their faces. Sturgess sounds too calm too often, and his face feels empty throughout the entire movie – even when he wins millions or argues with his best friends. Director Robert Luketic attempts to compensate and create tension with close-ups of Ben's eyes and shots of cards but unfortunately for Luketic, shots of kings and aces become mundane. The crescendo of music and close-ups of growing stacks of chips also add nothing to the scene and instead feel overly dramatic.

The lack of expression in the young characters leaves every person on the blackjack team vapid, shallow and lacking in character development. Sturgess's Ben lacks earnestness, and his "I've wanted Harvard Med School all my life" speech only comes off as pathetic. Jill (Kate Bosworth) is the token troubled and beautiful girl of the film but provides nothing more than this cookie-cutter movie personality. Yet even with the skimpy character development, Choi, with kooky antics and funny hair, is the most interesting member of the team.

The veteran actors steal the show from the younger crowd. Spacey and Fishbourne are perhaps the only two characters in the movie who show emotion beyond panic. Although Mickey's motivation doesn't quite make sense, Spacey's menacing and flattering persona is snarky and fun. Cole Brown's entrance to the movie, which arrives all too late, marks the beginning of the excitement in "21." Apparently card-counting isn't illegal, but casino management takes a very dim (and muscular) view of it.

The story of "21" had a lot of potential, but with a lack of emotion and motive, it loses soul and fun on the big screen. Close-ups of cards and chips just don't cut it.

"21" (118 minutes) is rated PG-13 for some violence and sexual content including partial nudity.

Monica Wei. Monica is an unfortunate piece of fruit that has been suspended in a gelatin cup. Okay, not really, but sometimes she feels like one. Monica the strawberry chunk enjoys reading, sitting in trees and watching the clouds go by. She thinks that anything tastes good … More »

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