Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations
Watch Live

Arts & Culture


Unlike the gamblers who wanted to sneak into casinos, pull in a large haul and go unnoticed, the Hollywood film 21 is all about grabbing attention. It wants to hook you so bad that it opens with a double tease. First, our narrator introduces us to the high stakes, high thrill world of Vegas gambling by starting the story with a little tease from the end -- a scene in which it looks as though our narrator is about to get caught. Then the film jumps to an interview at Harvard where our hero Ben Campbell is told that he really has to "jump off the page" and "dazzle," if he hopes to get into Harvard on one of their elite scholarships. So now we have the double hook in place: the invitation into the sexy world of high stakes blackjack where our hero has left himself in a moment of peril; and then there's the challenge to tell us a story that will "dazzle" us.

Jim Sturgess, the sweet-faced British lad of Across the Universe , plays Ben Campbell, the sweet-faced MIT Boston geek who dreams of going to Harvard Med School. The only obstacle in his way is money. Enter Professor Mickey Rosa (Kevin Spacey). He invites Campbell to a special class that's not listed in the course curriculum. Rosa, and a small handful of students, have mastered the art of counting cards and beating the casino at blackjack. Counting cards, Rosa tells Campbell, is not illegal but the casinos certainly don't encourage it. After struggling ever so fleetingly with his conscience, Campbell agrees to join the team. It doesn't hurt that the team includes the gorgeous Jill (Kate Bosworth), the kind of hot blonde that the nerdy Campbell could never hope to attain - unless of course he can kick ass at card counting and bring in hundreds of thousands at the blackjack table. Needless to say, Campbell will both win and lose big, and along the way pick up a few life lessons.

So does 21 dazzle us? Does it leap off the screen to separate itself from the dozens of other Hollywood players out there? No, not really. The story, like the real story behind The Bank Job , is amazing and compelling. But the true story of these MIT card counters was altered first for the book, Brining Down the House, and then further removed from reality when it was translated to the screen by Peter Steinfeld and Allan Loeb. Campbell is turned into a financially poor, academically rich student who's only doing this to get enough money to pay for his Harvard tuition. He's just trying to be a good boy, finding a means to pay for school without tapping into his mom's hard earned savings. That makes him more sympathetic than presenting him as a smart, ambitious student who partnered with other students in a business investment deal.


No MIT professors were involved in the real story, and the team of students actually walked away with a good chuck of change. The casinos weren't happy and most of the students have been banned from gambling at various casinos, but the violent plot turns that occur in the film seem manufactured. In fact the film also tries to manufacture interest in a backstory about the casino security guards who are being put out of business by new computer software, and who are still smarting from a scam pulled on them decades before. This subplot provides a supporting role for Laurence Fishburne but does little to improve the flow of the story or to generate increased interest in the proceedings. It does lay the groundwork for the "twist" that occurs. But to call the predictable plot manipulations a twist is just being generous.

The film disappoints because it ends up straddling two different film formulas: the heist/scam/con game ( Ocean's 11, Inside Man, The Sting ) and the struggling student drama ( The Paper Chase, Good Will Hunting, Educating Rita ). To be a successful heist film you need tight, crisp plotting, and a clever pay off. For the struggling student drama you need characters you can care for and a sense of investment in their future. 21 tries hard for the slick trappings of an Ocean's 11 but falls short because it also wants to present its characters as "real" people. But it never succeeds in making Campbell a three dimensional character that we truly care about. The film could have focused on his transformation -- how he gets caught up in the gambling and the power he feels when he wins. But although he claims humble working class roots and a feigned moral fiber, he ends up being too wishy-washy and too ultimately arrogant to feel much sympathy for. Plus he's too dumb. He may have academic smarts but he lacks common sense. I mean can you really feel sorry for a guy who unimaginatively hides his money in his dorm room and then cries when someone takes it? Why didn't he hide it at home or in a safety deposit box?

And that's another bind the film gets in - a good heist film needs a cocky, brash, smart leader, someone who convinces us that the impossible is totally possible. Then he either pulls off the impossible or gets his comeuppance. For a bit, Spacey's Rosa takes on that role but he's too peripheral to the story to function effectively. Campbell blusters about taking on that role briefly at the end but nothing really comes of it. So in the end 21 fails to deliver on the necessary ingredients to be a successful heist-style film but it lacks the depth to pull off a more satisfying drama. The students end up as cardboard cut outs - Jacob Pitts plays the arrogant white boy, Aaron Yoo is the Harold and Kumar goofy Asian, Liza Lapira is the smart Asian chick, and Kate Bosworth is the out-of-your-league blonde princess. None of these characters goes beyond these simple dimensions to make the film work as drama. Yet none of them have enough charisma or swagger to make the film work as a mindless, glossy casino tale.

Sturgess as Campbell is meant to blossom from a geeky high IQ nerd to a high rolling Vegas gambler who gets the hot chicks. But the transformation is all by the numbers. Spacey has fun with Rosa, delivering lines with the bite we've come to expect from the fast-talking bastards he's played in Glengarry Glen Ross, Hurly Burly and The Big Kahuna . But neither can carry the film.

Director Robert Luketic does little to help the thin, meandering script. His background is mostly in good ( Legally Blonde ) to lame ( Monster-in-Law ) comedies, none of which displayed any penchant for delivering the kind of tight, tense thrill ride 21 wants to be. He doesn't even put much vigor or enthusiasm into the details of how to pull off a mega-card counting scam like this one. No one on the tech crew comes to the film's rescue either. Cinematographer Russell Carpenter tries to sex up the Vegas scenes and editor Elliott Graham tries to keep the pace brisk but neither can hide the shortcomings of the script.


21 (rated PG-13 for some violence, and sexual content including partial nudity) is the kind of film that people who love Soderbergh's Ocean's film will probably enjoy. There's a certain appeal to the underdog students taking on the big casinos, but that's about it. Considering the true story the film is based on, it should have been far more fun or far more engrossing. As it stands, it's pretty much a bust, watchable, but still a bust.

Companion viewing: Croupier, Nine Queens, The Usual Suspects, Rain Man

You can see an interview with Mike Aponte, one of the real MIT card counters here or read an interview him.