Dir: Robert Luketic. US. 2008. 122 mins.
21 is a highly-fictionalised super-slick movie version of the non-fiction bestseller Bringing Down The House by Ben Mezrich which has just the right doses of MTV flash, pretty young stars and beat-the-system wish fulfillment to make it work at the box office as a healthy spring hit for Sony.
The film's true-story origins and engaging premise of uncool college nerds living large in the world's most bling-centric city will help bring older audiences to 21 as well as teens who will lap up the fantasy of making millions by doing nothing. Opening through Sony on March 28, it should be a sizeable spring domestic hit that could aspire to Ocean's 13 levels if not Ocean's 11.
The lack of marquee-name stars might lessen its impact in international markets and reviews will certainly be mixed, but the flamboyant marketing campaign and Vegas glitter could win over mainstream crowds looking for an entertaining drama with none of the gloom and doom of this year's Oscar crop.
Central to the success of the film is Jim Sturgess, the young English actor who has swiftly ascended to leading man status after Across The Universe last year. Sturgess, while clearly better looking than the average geek, has a likeable demeanour and vulnerability which work well in the lead role of Ben Campbell. 21 should establish him further as an in-demand twentysomething Hollywood actor.
Campbell is a shy student at Massachusetts Institute Of Technology (MIT) who has been accepted into Harvard Medical School. The catch is that he needs $300,000 to pay for the school fees and is counting on a scholarship for which he and many others are applying.
His mathematics professor, a stats genius called Micky Rosa (Spacey) notices him in class one day and invites him to join a secret group of the school's most gifted students who leave rainy Boston every weekend and head to Las Vegas. There, armed with fake identities and disguises, they play the blackjack tables, unobtrusively taking home hundreds of thousands of dollars by counting cards and employing a system of signals.
Ben is reluctant to leave his job in a clothing store or his nerdy friends with whom he is building a robot for a science competition, but, lured by the prospect of paying for Harvard and the attractive Jill Taylor (Bosworth) also on Rosa 's team, he succumbs and begins the weekend treks to Vegas.
Of course, the timid Ben soon falls prey to the seductions of Sin City, enjoying the big money, swanky hotel suites and privileges that a high roller can earn. And while casino enforcer Cole Williams (Fishburne) is on their tails - counting cards isn't illegal but Williams likes to violently discourage it - Ben's biggest enemy turns out to be Micky himself, a former card-counter who won't tolerate weakness in his students.
How much of 21 is actually true to the experiences of Jeff Ma, the real MIT student on whom Ben is based, is irrelevant. The answer is probably not much since Rosa is an amalgam of several people and Jill Taylor didn't exist. Director Robert Luketic and his producers have essentially just taken the story and - as movies have always done - Hollywoodised it.
Luketic races the drama along while brushing many of the essential details under the carpet - exactly which casinos are they in and why is Williams omnipresent, how could Micky Rosa's activities elude MIT's other staff, how exactly does the card-counting system work, what happens to Ben at the end of the film etc. But then Luketic, whose credits include Legally Blonde and Monster-In-Law, is not a detail-oriented director and his focus here on the pace and sex appeal of the piece essentially works to its advantage.
Spacey makes a nicely chilly villain and Bosworth a warm and glamorous leading lady, if an implausible maths genius.
Michael De Luca Productions
Michael De Luca
Peter Steinfeld & Allan Loeb, based on the book Bringing Down The House by Ben Mezrich
Director of photography