In the early ‘90s a group of MIT students racked up a few million dollars. How, you might ask? By counting cards while playing blackjack on the weekends in Vegas. Their story was chronicled in Ben Mezrich’s 2002 bestseller “Bringing Down The House” and was naturally destined to appear on the big screen. Unfortunately, the resulting “21” turns out to be a mixed hand.
Having yet to read the book, I don’t know what parts of the film actually took place. My guess is not much as most of the story seems to draw inspiration from tried and true clichés. It’s a simple rags-to-riches, rise-and-fall tale that’s in some ways reminiscent of a John Grisham novel, and it never strays far from those expectations.
Ben Campbell (Jim Sturgess) is a young genius attending MIT who doesn’t have the cash to pay for Harvard Medical School. When asked to join a student blackjack operation run by teacher Mickey Rosa (Kevin Spacey), he caves in, seeing it as his opportunity to make the 300 grand he needs for Harvard. All is well until he arrives in Vegas and is seduced by its extravagant lifestyle.
Along the way, the film makes use of several conventional devices. Ben has a pair of nerdy friends even though he himself never looks or acts that way, and once his Vegas routine hits full gear, they predictably are pushed aside. Then there’s the matter of Jill Taylor (Kate Bosworth), the girl Ben has a crush on who just happens to be on the team. She’s a thinly drawn character that is never given clear motivation for why she wants or needs the money and later comes across as a hypocrite when she condemns Ben’s willful behavior.
Thankfully, the presence of veteran actors Spacey and Laurence Fishburne restores a gravitas to the proceedings. While Sturgess (“Across the Universe”) proves adequate as the lead, it’s these two that allow his situation to be taken seriously. It also helps that second-rate director Robert Luketic (“Legally Blonde”) has turned in his best work and allows the audience to overlook a portion of the plot’s familiar trappings.
In the end, however, the film can’t decide what kind of story it wants to portray. On the one hand, it longs to be a morality tale, addressing the enticement of greed, gambling and the destruction that usually follows. At its core though it appears more concerned with learning how to beat the system rather than teaching a lesson. That’s fine if you’re “Ocean’s Eleven,” which reveled in glitz and glamour and had the goods to back it up, but since “21” attempts to delve a little deeper, it can’t help but fold under its own contradictions.