Despite being "inspired by a true story", and based on the novel by Ben Mezrich, 21 is an obviously highly fictionalized account of a group of MIT college students who broke the bank in Vegas with a card counting system. Much has been changed, and usually not for the better. Though far from a terrible movie, the screenplay by Peter Steinfeld (Be Cool, Analyze That) and Allan Loeb (Things We Lost in the Fire) is far too padded and drawn out. It gets to the point where we don't know if we're watching a movie based on a true story, or a two hour advertisement created by the Las Vegas tourism committee.
At the center of the story is Ben Campbell (Jim Sturgess from Across the Universe and The Other Boleyn Girl), a gifted young man with dreams of going to Harvard Medical School. He has the recommendations, the grade point average, and the skills to be accepted. What he doesn't have is the $300,000 fee required to go there. There is a scholarship that could get him a free ride into the school, but his chances there are looking faint. With student loans apparently not existing in whatever world this movie takes place in, Ben is getting desperate, and the $8 an hour he makes as assistant manager at a men's clothing store isn't cutting it. That's when one of his Professors at MIT, Micky Rosa (Kevin Spacey), happens to notice Ben's talent for logical thinking under pressure and skill with mathematics. He introduces Ben to a secret group he's organizing after hours on campus where some of Ben's fellow students and him take trips to Vegas every weekend, and make out like bandits using a complex system of secret code words, counting cards, and fake identities so that they don't get caught. Ben is hesitant at first, but his desire for money, and even stronger desire for one of the women in Professor Rosa's Vegas group named Jill Taylor (Kate Bosworth) draws him in. Ben's initial plan is to raise the money he needs for Harvard, then get out. But the party lifestyle of Vegas and the allure of money draws him in to the point that he forgets about everything. This not only costs him his friends back home at college, whom he starts to ignore, but he also starts to arouse suspicion with the head of security at one of the casinos Ben's group frequents - an old fashioned Vegas "thug" named Cole Williams (Laurence Fishburne).
Just looking over that synopsis almost fools me into thinking that 21 is a much more interesting movie than it actually is. There's certainly nothing wrong with the premise, it's the execution that makes everything come up short. This movie gives a muddied and blurred look not only into the lives of these people, but also the system they used to pull this scam off. The movie uses a lot of camera tricks and music video-style editing to depict their training, so we never get a real sense of just what the plan is, and how they put it together. The movie doesn't even seem that interested in the students themselves, as aside from Ben, we learn absolutely nothing about them. Are they in this group for the same reason as him, or is it just simple greed for them? They're a sketchy group at best, with only one of the students besides Ben having a character trait. The fact that this trait is that this other student is a klepto and likes to steal from his hotel rooms doesn't really help draw us in. Not even the relationship that slowly grows between Ben and Jill is very effective, because they have not been written as interesting people. They don't get many quiet moments together, and the one time they actually make love, the camera is more fixated on the Vegas backdrop outside the window behind them than on the two people we're supposed to be concentrating on. Part of this is because the movie is rated PG-13, so obviously we're not going to see much. And part of it is because director Robert Luketic (Legally Blonde, Monster-in-Law) seems more interested in the story's setting than the story itself.
After a lengthy introduction sequence informing us of Ben and his money problems that drags on far too long, the movie finally hits Vegas, and I expected things to start picking up. Strangely enough, the movie seems to become even more distracted. We get a lot of music video-style montages of Ben and his friends winning big, a lot of shots of the Vegas strip, and a lot of fancy product placements when they start spending their winnings. But, the story itself kind of spins its wheels and never really goes anywhere. Despite its best efforts, the movie is never really creates any tension. We know that Ben is being watched by Cole Williams, and we see fairly early on what he does to people he catches cheating, but the character of Cole is mainly used as a device rather than a character who creates genuine tension. Fishburne is a very powerful actor, and is more than capable of creating a sense of menace. If you need proof, just see his performance as Ike Turner in What's Love Got to Do With It. He's not menacing or very interesting here. He just stands in the shadows for most of his screen time, narrowing his eyes. The movie also tries to create tension with a subplot about one of Ben's fellow students in on the scam (Jacob Pitts) growing jealous of him when Ben becomes the head player in the group. The two characters never have a confrontation that we would expect, and the character is completely dropped by the halfway point, never to be seen or heard from again. It's almost as if rather than doing an adaptation of this amazing true story, the filmmakers used this as an excuse for an extended Vegas vacation, and decided to just film the actors jetting around the strip while they were there.
When it comes to the performances, only Jim Sturgess and Kevin Spacey stand out, as they're the only ones who get something that resembles character development. The story arc for Ben of going from a quiet and meek "brain", to a reckless high roller in Vegas who almost loses everything is very predictable, but Sturgess is able to give his performance enough humanity that he's interesting to watch, and has a screen presence that can carry the film. This is good, since he's literally in every scene of the film. As for Spacey, he brings the usual intensity that he always brings to his roles. He seems to be having fun, and it's a shame that the movie forces him to stay off camera for such a long period of time, so the movie can focus on his students goofing around in Vegas. As the main love interest of the story, Kate Bosworth is disappointingly dry and never generates any real screen presence, not even when she's sharing a scene alone with Sturgess. This not only makes their relationship hard to get behind, but it also makes her character come across as a dullard, slowing down the pace of the film whenever she's on screen. The remainder of the cast is frivolous, and hardly worth mentioning.
It seems that a lot of movies set in Vegas these days lose their focus on the story, and expect us to be entertained by the setting. I am reminded of last year's Lucky You, a mediocre romantic comedy-drama that also was set around professional gambling. 21 makes a lot of the same mistakes that movie did. It completely forgets to develop the characters at the heart of the story, and seems to only be speaking to those in the audience who are in the same mind set as the characters up on the screen. Movies are supposed to invite us into the world the characters inhabit. All this movie makes us want to do is go straight to the Travel Agent, and catch the first flight to Vegas. 21 works as an advertisement for a vacation destination, but is not so successful as a gripping drama.
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