Directed by: Robert Luketic
Starring: Jim Sturgess, Kate Bosworth, Kevin Spacey, Aaron Yoo, Liza Lapira, Laurence Fishbourne
Rated: PG-13 for some violence, and sexual content including partial nudity.
Parental Notes: This is a solid PG-13 film. There’s some beating of card sharks by Vegas security goons and a sex scene, but neither is as graphic as you’d find in an R-rated film.
Some years back, a team of college students learned to count cards and made millions in casinos from Las Vegas to Paris playing blackjack. Their adventures were written about in the book “Bringing Down the House” and have now inspired a movie, “21.” There’s been some fuss about the film’s changing of the team’s racial balance as well as the Hollywoodification of the story, but ultimately the film is pretty much what you’d expect: it takes the basic idea of the real events and turns them into a fun flick. It’s not “Citizen Kane,” but it’s a reasonably entertaining way to spend a couple of hours, especially if you can go along with the flow of a Hollywood formula.
Ben (Jim Sturgess, “The Other Boleyn Girl”) is about to graduate from MIT and has been accepted into Harvard Medical School, but there’s a problem: he has no money. He tries to get a full-ride scholarship, but is warned that his chances aren’t good because he has very little in the way of interesting life experience to set him apart from the other candidates. I guess his robotics project with his two nerdy best friends doesn’t count.
Apparently Ben has never heard of student loans (or seen anything about casinos’ tendency to break card counters’ faces) or other scholarship opportunities, because when he’s approached by professor Mickey Rosa (Kevin Spacey, “Fred Claus”) to join a card counting team, he overcomes his initial reluctance and says yes, he’ll do it just long enough to get the money for med school.
After a couple of montages and a test, Ben is ready to go. During the week, the kids are college students, working on homework and crashing in their dorm rooms. On weekends, they turn into high rollers with new names and backstories, enjoying the good life in casinos and raking in the big bucks with their math skills and teamwork. Even better, Mickey can pull strings to get them out of assignments that might interfere with their gambling (and his cut of their take).
Of course, this wouldn’t be a studio picture if there wasn’t romance (between Ben and one of his teammates — the lovely Jill, played by Kate Bosworth) and menace (offered by Laurence Fishbourne as a casino security specialist and by Spacey, whose character is deliciously nasty under his benign exterior). The storyline stretches a bit to work in both elements as well as a subplot about the tension between Ben and his best friends, who must be kept in the dark about his new profession but can see him changing into a different person.
Spacey is overqualified for his role as the friendly-until-you-cross-him professor, and glides through the film with ease and grace. Fishbourne is in the same class, and it’s a real shame the two don’t have more time together onscreen. The younger actors all hold their own reasonably well, although the parts aren’t particularly challenging.
There’s nothing terribly ground-breaking here, from the simplistic character development to the double-cross in the final act, but when it comes to escapist entertainment, it’s hard to beat a story of a smart kid making big bucks off his math skills and winding up in over his head in the Las Vegas gambling scene.