21 Review

by Steve Rhodes (steve DOT rhodes AT internetreviews DOT com)
April 1st, 2008

A film review by Steve Rhodes
Copyright 2008 Steve Rhodes

RATING (0 TO ****): * 1/2

>From the better known films (THE STING) to the lesser known ones (ROUNDERS and OWNING MAHOWNY), gambling has proven to be one of the easiest subjects for exploring in motion pictures. The reason is obvious. We've all gambled some in our lives, so watching the characters go through the emotional roller coaster of winning and losing makes it natural for us to experience their intense emotions vicariously.

But 21 is a gambling movie in name only. Actually two movies in one, 21 features a group of actors about age 21 who think they are in a very light-weight teen romantic comedy. Their silly antics, as directed ham-handedly by MONSTER-IN-LAW's Robert Luketic, is what the movie is most interested in. 21 is nominally also a gambling movie, but you can tell that its heart is never in it. Based very loosely on a real story about a group of college students who used card counting to beat the casinos, the movie gives us a blink-and-you'll-miss-it explanation of the math, actually the very simple arithmetic, behind their scheme. And, when filming the playing of their blackjack games, the editor cuts so quickly that it's rarely clear who has which cards.

For a movie based on math, the results are pretty infuriating. What the students do is use card counting to turn a slight disadvantage into a slight advantage by betting really big when the decks are hot, i.e. when they have more of the right cards left. While this would mean they would win slightly more often, the movie has them winning every hand once they get the right card mix in the undealt deck.

The script feels the need to introduce lots of subplots that are both uninteresting and complete distractions. When we meet the story's central character, Ben Campbell (Jim Sturgess, who played Jude in ACROSS THE UNIVERSE), he is busy applying for a medical school scholarship and competing in a robot competition. Busy Ben, who works in a clothing story -- another of the subplots, is recruited by his MIT math professor, Micky Rosa (Kevin Spacey), to join a group of students who live the high life on weekends in Vegas as they beat the casinos by counting cards at blackjack.

In a movie filled with nothing but one-dimensional characters, Kate Bosworth plays Ben's generic love interest and fellow counter. Laurence Fishburne, in a yet another storyline, plays an old style Vegas security guy who likes to rough up gamblers who are caught cheating by doing something, not illegal, but prohibited by the owners of the gambling palaces.

If you've seen the trailers for the movie, you probably think it is a high action affair. In reality, the movie is an energyless production that turns into a long slog, since it's a bloated two-hour-plus production.

The characters are acted so lamely and the script develops them so poorly that I never cared whether they won, lost or got their legs broken. 21 may be the name of the game, the age of most of the characters and the title of the movie, but I'm betting that you'll think 21 must have been its running time in hours.

21 runs 2:03. It is rated PG-13 for "some violence, and sexual content including partial nudity" and would be acceptable for kids around 10 and up.
My son Jeffrey, age 18, gave it * 1/2, complaining about a host of things wrong with the film. He said that it didn't talk about the math it's based on, it was full of long dead spots, it had way too many storylines, it was very predictable, and, most of all, it did nothing with its promising premise. His girlfriend Yasmin, also 18, gave it **, saying that she found it really predictable, although the story idea was interesting. She also found the ending confusing.

The film is playing in nationwide release now in the United States. In the Silicon Valley, it is showing at the AMC theaters, the Century theaters and the Camera Cinemas.

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