By Brian Rentschler
Short version: Loosely based on real events, this movie has the potential to be powerful and poignant, but instead it settles for being a mildly entertaining popcorn flick. If you check your brain at the door and don't mind style over substance, it's good for a couple of hours of mindless entertainment.
Before I go into much detail about the story, I should mention that the real standout in this movie is Jim Sturgess. The script doesn't give him much in terms of character, but his acting ability seems to rise above the relative mediocrity of the script. Not only that, but he is a British actor doing an American accent, and I don't recall a single slip-up in his American accent throughout the film. Granted, he is playing a guy from the East Coast, which makes it a little easier, but still... I thought he really stood out from the rest of the cast.
Loosely based on the book Bringing Down the House by Ben Mezrich about the real-life MIT card-counting team, this movie is set (where else?) at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The protagonist is Ben Campbell (played by Jim Sturgess), an MIT student who is about to graduate. He has been accepted to Harvard Medical School, but he's worried about how he will be able to afford the $300,000 it will cost him to attend. A full-ride scholarship, for which there is obviously fierce competition, is Ben's only hope for attending Harvard Med. (Apparently Ben is unacquainted with the concept of medical school loans, but I digress...)
As Ned Flanders would say, Ben is in a real dilly of a pickle. Will he get the scholarship to attend Harvard Medical School? (Insert nail-biting sound effect here...) Or will he be forced to make do with a degree from MIT? Luckily for Ben, he happens to be a math studmuffin, and his nonlinear equations professor, Mickey Rosa (played by Kevin Spacey), is so impressed with his math abilities that he recruits him to be on his clandestine blackjack team. The team has a card-counting strategy developed by Professor Rosa, and they want to take the Vegas casinos for millions. At first, Ben is reluctant to join, but one of the team members, Jill Taylor (played by Kate Bosworth), approaches him and asks him to reconsider. Since Jill is a hottie and Ben has been wanting to ask her out anyway, he thinks better of his previous decision and decides to join the team.
Movie cliché #295:
Ben: I only want to earn enough to pay for medical school. After that, I'm out.
Jill: That's what they all say.
After some trial runs plus a rather silly initiation, Ben and the team are ready to head out to Vegas, baby. Of course, the team's purpose, membership and existence are more super-secret than a government defense contract, so Ben has to lie to everyone, including his mother and his friends, about why he's gone so much. Professor Rosa is pulling strings so that Ben can keep passing his classes and graduate, but Ben's friends, Miles (played by Josh Gad) and Cam (played by Sam Golzari), are feeling left in the lurch. The three of them are supposed to finish a robotics project for an upcoming competition, but with Ben gone so much, their project is starting to fall behind schedule.
As if poor Ben's life isn't already complicated enough, he becomes so addicted to his new high-rolling lifestyle that he gets cocky, deviates from the system and starts losing money, which makes Professor Rosa very angry. The movie goes out of its way to show you that life can be very unpleasant if you're on Professor Rosa's bad side. To make matters worse, a security consultant at Planet Hollywood casino named Cole Williams (played by Laurence Fishburne) figures out that Ben is part of a card-counting team. Since this is a Hollyweird movie, Cole doesn't ask Ben to leave or even have him forcibly removed from the premises. Instead he takes him in back, beats the crap out of him and threatens to kill him if he ever returns. (Apparently Cole is unacquainted with the concepts of police and personal injury lawyers, but I digress...)
Movie cliché #49:
Cole: You think you can beat the system?
Does Ben return anyway, not only to Vegas, but to the exact same casino where Cole threatened to kill him? You get three guesses. (Apparently Ben is unacquainted with the concepts of Atlantic City casinos and Native American casinos, but I digress...)
Having lost a huge amount of money, Ben faces an uphill battle. Will he be able to recover enough money to pay for medical school? Will he still be able to help his friends finish the robotics project? Will he be able to dig his way out from all the lies he has been telling everybody? Will he bust a move on the hottie Jill?
For me, the most frustrating thing about this movie is how much potential it squanders. I recently saw The Treasure of the Sierra Madre with Humphrey Bogart, which is one of the best movies I have ever seen. Its theme is summed up in a classic line by Walter Huston: "I've seen what gold does to men's souls." Of course, the theme of 21 is meant to be similar, but while Sierra Madre does an excellent job of showing a person's eventual descent into madness borne of greed, 21 shows us a bunch of whiny kids who don't have the common sense God gave a billy goat. There is plenty of entertainment value in 21, but it has nowhere near the depth of the timeless classic to which it begs comparison.
To use the vernacular of Bob Phillips (played by Jack Gilpin), who is interviewing Ben at Harvard Medical School at the beginning of the movie, this version of the story doesn't dazzle. It doesn't jump off the page — or the screen. Instead of taking some risks and actually having a point to make, the filmmakers stay mostly in safe, formulaic territory. They reject quite a bit of the true story's reality and substitute their own. The result is reasonably entertaining, but not nearly as much as it could (and should) be.