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21′ is a bust

By Sam Potter

OK, I think we get it. Las Vegas is by and large a facade full of glitz and glamour, a cesspool of hedonistic pleasures to which people think they can escape but will ultimately bite them in the backside. It has become Hollywood’s favorite backdrop for stories on the hubris of man, a way to show the greed and pride in all of us and the nasty results that follow if one chooses to pursue them. We get it.

Unfortunately, “21”, the latest movie to tackle Sin City, adds little of anything new to what we know of the Vegas phenomenon. The film stars Jim Sturgess (“Across The Universe”) as Ben Campbell, an earnest and somewhat bookish — yet still raggedly hip — MIT student who is inches away from nailing a scholarship that will grant him a full-ride into Harvard Law. In his spare time, he develops a self-propelled automobile with his nerdy engineering friends and gawks at resident hottie Jill Taylor (Kate Bosworth). One of his professors, Mickey Rosa (Kevin Spacey), sees great promise in Ben and attempts to recruit him to join an elite group of students whom Rosa is teaching to count cards in Blackjack. Rosa plans on using the students to rake it in in Vegas, but Ben’s better judgement says, “No.” When the possibility of being denied the scholarship weighs on him and when he sees that one of Rosa’s “elite” happens to be Jill, Ben is soon convinced and they’re off.

Meanwhile, we get to know Cole Williams (Laurence Fishburne), a tough loss prevention officer who has a bone to pick with Rosa and anyone whom he happens to catch trying to beat the system.

Any guesses as to who might be his next target?

The film had a lot of potential. It was based on the book Bringing Down The House written by Ben Mezrich. Although I haven’t read the book, a friend with whom I attended the film had and told me the true fate of the real Ben Campbell. If the filmmakers had shown a little more gumption, it could have made a truly compelling story. The real Ben wallowed in frustration for years and suffered a more crippling and desperate fate than the one shown here.

Instead, we get a by-the-numbers (no pun intended) fall from grace laid out in a predictable fashion. Almost everything in the movie seems recycled from some other “Vegas” film: the tough security guys “taking out the trash” a la “Casino,” the “here’s how we do it” montage edited to hip eurobeat music a la the “Ocean’s Eleven” series and the endless number of montages featuring the card counting team partying and enjoying ridiculous wealth.

The relentless soundtrack was particularly annoying. The filmmakers seemed so scared to lose the interest of their demographic (MTV/TRL college-age kids) that they let nary a minute go by without throwing a pulsating dance beat under the action.

Worse still, why would a film possessing the potential to tell a truly tragic story of one genius’s cataclysmic fall decide to shortchange itself by stripping away the tougher segments and doll it up in an easy-to-digest, MTV-style glitz that is almost as emotionally shallow as Vegas itself?

The film gives us a minimal insight into the method of counting cards and paints its characters in too broad of strokes. It seems more concerned with getting to its too cleanly wrapped-up resolution than answering the tough questions that separate this film from the pack.

The biggest puzzlement of all is the stupidity of these supposed MIT “geniuses.” Why do they smuggle loads of dollar bills in their pants? Why does Ben stash all his winnings behind a ceiling panel in his dorm room? Boston is full of well-to-do people, and people who attend MIT and Harvard are also pretty well off. Has he never heard of a bank account or a safety deposit box? Why does the team continually play in the same casino the entire time when its leader is fully aware of the possibility of the casino’s security team catching on? Why stay in Vegas?

Why not go to a variety of gambling spots, such as Mesquite, Reno, Lake Tahoe, Atlantic City and a number of the casinos on Native American reservations? It doesn’t take an MIT graduate to figure these simple things out.

Despite these qualms, the film is competently performed and mildly entertaining. But for a film about people with off-the-charts brainpower, the film was surprisingly dumbed down. Turn your brain off, and you won’t be disappointed.

“21”Columbia PicturesWritten by Peter Steinfeld and Allan LoebDirected by Robert LuketicStarring Jim Sturgess, Kate Bosworth, Kevin Spacey and Laurence FishburneRated PG-13 / 123 minutesTwo out of four stars

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