21 (2008): Robert Luketic’s Fantasy Adventure, Starring Kevin Spacey and Jim Sturgess

Robert Luketic’s new film, simply called 21, is a glitzy but preposterously plotted fantasy-adventure that gives a bad name to American higher education (specifically MIT and Harvard), college professors and students, and Las Vegas, too.
Serving as opening night of the 2008 SXSW Film Festival in Austin, “21” will be released by Columbia March 28, and suffering from bad reviews, should have a very short theatrical run.

Luketic, who began so well his Hollywood career with the Reese Witherspoon star vehicle, “Legally Blonde,” continues a downward pattern with “21.” Though not as shallow as Luketic’s previous movie, the dreadful comedy “Monster-in-Law,” “21” is equally polished in terms of production values, except that it lacks the star power of Jane Fonda and Jennifer Lopez.

“Bringing Down the House,” Ben Mezrich’s popular book of the real-life MIT students in the 1990s, has been freely adapted to the screen by Peter Steinfeld and Allan Loeb, resulting in a rambling, diffuse, incoherent narrative. I have not read the source material, about a group of bright undergraduate college students led by a corrupt professor who scored big by counting cards in Vegas casinos. However, I can’t believe that even half of what’s depicted on screen has taken placenot at this day and age.

The film is polished and superficially shrewd, but it’s just a veneer, a facade for a tale that tries to do too much and to please different kinds of audiences. In essence, “21” is yet another Faustian morality play a la “Devil’s Advocate,” in which a good, industrious but poor student named Ben Campbell (Jim Sturgess of “Across the Universe” fame), is recruited for some shady games by a snaky professor, Mickey Rosa, played Kevin Spacey (also credited as producer), who’s doing what he has been doing for at least a decade.

Sturgess gives a pale performance as a brilliant but awkwardly shy math-science genius whose goal in life is to attend Harvard Medical School after completing his senior year at MIT. Unfortunately, his widowed mom (Helen Carey) cannot afford the high tuition, and he is forced to work in a men’s wear store for meager hourly rate. However, poor mom won’t give up the ideal, and later in the proceedings, she is willing to hand to her son all of her savings, not realizing that by that time he has become a rich man.

It takes a while before Ben is seduced by MIT professor Rosa into joining his underground club, consisting of a multi-racial students trained in how to cheat and make fast cash by counting quickly cards at blackjack tables during weekends in glamorous Las Vegas.

At first, Ben deludes himself that he is only doing it for the tuition (around $300,000) and that he will quit as soon as he accumulates the needed amount. Meanwhile, he keeps the cash (not too smartly) hidden in the ceiling of his shabby dorm apartment.

How did the scheme work According to the fairy-tale movie, it is too easy to be true. The game plan relies on a designated “big player,” either Ben or his peer Fisher (Jacob Pitts), who have to wait for a signal (usually by a gesture with their hand) from a “spotter” making low-wager bets. When one of the spotters, such as teammates Jill (Kate Bosworth), Choi (Aaron Yoo) and Kianna (Liza Lapira), indicates that the dealer is working with a “hot deck,” the former player comes by and bets big. The player is expected to continue betting until the spotter signals him to stop.

Early on, Mickey, a vet ace player himself, explains the rules of his game, repeatedly warning them against getting too excited-or too greedy. Serving as a drill sergeant of a platoon, Mickey makes it clear to his players that if they break his rules they’ll be punished by him-and sure enough they are.

Not neglecting the romantic angle, the tale features a sexy Caucasian student Jill (Bosworth), who’s attracted to Ben and finds all kinds of excuses to visit him at the store and be around him, though she is not ready to sleep with him-not yet; he has to prove his mettle yet.

Mickey’s back story, of how he met and escaped the clutches of Cole Williams (Laurence Fishburne), a casino enforcer, who’s also the first to spot on Ben and his comrades,
doesn’t make much sense. This subplot turns the saga into a simpler, nastier revenge drama with all the requisite torture scenes.

It’s never made clear how Mickey has survived as a tenured professor at M.I.T., and what explains the base of his continuous power over his students and comrades in crime.

Unfortunately, “21” wants to be both an exciting caper movie about how the “little guys” screwed the “big ones” at Vegasat least for a while–and also a morality tale about unbridles greed about knowing your limitations, or knowing when to stop.

For a while, Luketic generates suspense and good will by recording the Vegas sessions in an alluringly kinetic mode. But the movie gets worse as it goes along, and the second half consists of too many illogical twists and turns of the plot, and predictably schematic character developments, defined by sin, remorse, change-of-heart.

Ben’s classmates (played Josh Gad and Sam Golzari) are expectedly nerdy, childish, and preoccupied with making technological inventions while obsessing about girl and their need to get laid. Their on-and-of friendship with Ben, who disappears for long weekend (at an age when cell phone are ubiquitous), also defies logic and credibility.

Moreover, Luketic and his scenarists don’t know how to end satisfactorily their saga, and so there at least three conclusions.

Ben’s evolution from a working-class nerd into a suave, well-groomed and dressed player, who reaps the benefits of a luxurious Vegas style, is not persuasive either. Lanky, appealing but not particularly charismatic, the British Jim Sturgess, essaying an O.K. but not great Boston accent, gives a modest performance that lacks charge; countless young American actors would have done a better job. Sturgess projects a boyish, non-threatening erotic image, which means that his scenes with Bosworth (the best thing in the film) lack heat or chemistry.

By now we have come to expect darkly comedic interpretations from Spacey and as Mickey, and he doesn’t disappoint, giving the same line readings he has been doing since his 1999 Oscar turn in “American Beauty.”

As if the picture doesn’t have enough problems, Luketic’s choice of accompanying the closing credits with the Rolling Stones song “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” is obvious and banal, all the more increasing an aura of literalism that defines the entire picture.

Cast

Ben Campbell – Jim Sturgess
Mickey Rosa – Kevin Spacey
Jill – Kate Bosworth
Choi – Aaron Yoo
Kianna – Liza Lapira
Fisher – Jacob Pitts
Cole Williams – Laurence Fishburne
Terry – Jack McGee
Miles – Josh Gad
Cam – Sam Golzari
Ellen Campbell – Helen Carey

Credits

A Sony Pictures Entertainment release of a Columbia Pictures presentation in association with Relativity Media of a Trigger Street/Michael De Luca production.
Produced by Michael De Luca.
Executive producers, William S. Beasley, Brett Ratner, Ryan Kavanaugh.
Directed by Robert Luketic.
Screenplay, Peter Steinfeld, Allan Loeb, based on the book “Bringing Down the House” by Ben Mezrich.
Camera: Russell Carpenter.
Editor: Elliott Graham.
Music: David Sardy.
Production designer: Missy Stewart.
Art director: James Truesdale.
Set decorator: Tracey A. Doyle.
Costume designer: Luca Mosca.
Sound: Gary C. Bourgeois, Greg Orloff.
Visual effects supervisor: Gray Marshall.
Visual effects: Gray Matter FX.

MPAA Rating: PG-13.
Running time: 123 Minutes.