||The house usually wins at games of blackjack, but it’s a pretty good bet that Columbia Pictures, as well as the audience, will lose with this fact-based but highly fictionalized tale of a bunch of MIT math students who clean up counting cards in Vegas under the tutelage of a snake-charmer teacher. Based on Ben Mezrich’s book “Bringing Down the House,” about the experiences of Kevin Lewis (real name Jeff Ma) with the team, “21” is buoyed by an attractive lead turn from boyish Jim Sturgess, another Brit capable of pulling off a convincing American accent, as a good kid lured into the operation by the promise of money to cover his med school costs, but as a whole the picture comes off as a glib, flashy reworking of a story that, shorn of the cheap formulaic frills that have been added to it in the name of merchandising, might have been fascinating.
In the overheated version of the tale fashioned by Peter Steinfeld and Allan Loeb, Sturgess plays Ben Campbell, a senior who’s a poor “townie” trying to get a highly competitive scholarship to Harvard Med but concerned that it’s likely to go to someone else and wondering how he and his widowed mother Ellen (Helen Carey) could handle the costs if it does. Fortuitously he’s approached by smugly condescending math prof Mickey Rosa (Kevin Spacey) to join a student group that goes to Vegas and plays blackjack under assumed names, using elaborate counting techniques and under-the-radar signals to one another to make big bucks. Seduced by the lure of getting enough to cover Harvard tuition (but no more—Ben’s got principles), and by the personal appeals of team hottie Jill (Kate Bosworth), the kid joins fellow geniuses Fisher (Jacob Pitts), Choi (Aaron Yoo) and Kianna (Liza Lapira) in what turns out, after the obligatory training montages, to be an extremely lucrative operation.
Of course, things spin out of control in various ways. One of the team members goes rogue and gets dismissed. Ben’s romance with Jill confuses matters. And a dispute with Mickey not only causes the remaining team members to go it alone, but earns them his animosity—a dangerous thing, not only because Cole Williams (Laurence Fishburne), an ace casino security guy, is intent on ferreting out beat-the-house schemes and willing to employ old-fashioned arm-twisting methods when he does, but also because Rosa can use his faculty position to undermine a student’s status back on campus, too. On a personal level, moreover, Ben’s involvement with the team sours his relationship with his old nerd buddies Miles and Cam (Josh Gad and Sam Golzari, who look as though they might have wandered in from a Judd Apatow flick), with whom he’s supposed to be building a robot for a traditional college contest.
It all leads to a complicatedly clever denouement in which things are not as they seem as Ben tries desperately to work himself out of the hole he’s gotten himself into.
The strength of “21” lies pretty completely in Sturgess’ portrayal of a nice guy seduced into an ethical and legal dilemma that threatens to derail a promising life. The disparity between his subdued, amiable Boston persona and the wilder, excess-prone risk-taker he becomes on the Vegas strip may not be entirely credible, but the young actor manages to keep Campbell sympathetic throughout—no mean accomplishment. Unfortunately, the rest of the cast are working on a lower level. Of the other team members, Bosworth is pretty but unremarkable, Pitts goes overboard in more senses than one, and Lapira is forgettable; only Yoo, repeating his goofy shtick from “Disturbia,” is colorful enough to send out a real frisson of fun. And as a group they’re all too much the typical snazzy bunch of overachievers one so often sees in these sorts of cool kid scenarios, whether they be about breaking into the SAT testing office (“The Perfect Score”) or saving their school (“Masterminds”). As for Spacey, he does nothing we’ve not seen him do before, though he pulls off the shark act with his usual amusing aplomb; nor does Fishburne, whose gruff intensity is strictly by-the-numbers.
And that’s what’s wrong with “21” as a whole. The script gussies up what might have been an intriguing premise in a barrage of melodramatic clichés and an avalanche of CGI visual effects and musical montages, not to mention a final twist that takes us into the realm of “The Sting” without any of that picture’s delicious sense of closure. Technically it’s solid enough (with Russell Carpenter’s cinematography distinguishing nicely between the snowy Massachusetts and glitzy Nevada ambiences), but neither a good appearance nor Sturgess’ winning turn compensates for a narrative that’s mostly formula blather and direction by Robert Luketic that isn’t sufficiently skilled to conceal the fact.
After all, the whole point of the plan in “21” is for the team to hide what they’re doing from the casino’s all-seeing surveillance. And the filmmakers should have realized that they’d need equally adept sleight-of-hand to keep viewers from observing all the cheap narrative tricks they’re trying to get away with.