02 April 2008


“21” is about very smart people. They are math students at MIT who are able to count cards in games of blackjack at Las Vegas casinos, and in turn win hundreds of thousands of dollars. They have an intricate system, unbreakable codes, and even some clever disguises.
We may not be math prodigies, but it’s unfortunate that the filmmakers do not consider we audience members to be smart enough to figure out a basic, predictable plot such as the one presented here. While the movie manages to entertain, it begins to get tedious by the end.
Jim Sturgess stars as Ben Campbell, a boy genius with dreams of medical school but without the funds to realize those dreams. Enter shady math professor Micky Rosa (Kevin Spacey) who has put together a crack team of stellar students to take Vegas for all its worth. All Ben has to do is join and he will have the money he needs.
He joins. We know that he must join, because if he doesn’t, there is no film. At least not the one promised us through the advertisements. Still, we have to sit through a refusal, a failed recruitment and another refusal before Ben finally joins the team. I hope I wasn’t the only one to see that coming.
Other blatant foreshadowing abounds. Ben notices a girl named Jill (Kate Bosworth) that he finds attractive. Guess what! She’s on the blackjack team and they are soon living it up in Sin City with lots of cash to blow. We know by the rules of poetic justice, and coming-of-age films, that Ben’s misdeeds must catch up to him. They do.
If I seem overly sarcastic, I must apologize. It’s not a bad film, really. It’s just that little grinds my gears more than a film that insults my intelligence. They do not even try to clearly explain the team’s card-counting method. I suppose they did not think we could grasp what they repeatedly call “basic math.”
Still, it’s entertaining enough. All the glitz and glamour of Vegas is on display, with plenty of flashy and perhaps overly frenetic camerawork to go with it. The performances are satisfactory. We are left satisfied by the ending.
Perhaps the root of my problem with the film is its billing as “based on a true story.” The film adds in lots of artificial plot devices to move the story along, and you can tell they are not part of the factual events.
Elements of chase films and heist pictures fall in, turning the movie into average escapist fare. It’s better than many films out in theatres now, but won’t be remembered once the summer arrives.
Perhaps I have been overly critical. Perhaps, comparatively, it is a good film, one that makes intellectuals into heroes for a change, a film that does not paint virtue and vice in clear-cut terms. And, as I said, it’s entertaining. It just seems to me that maybe we can aim higher, that maybe the movie industry should try to deliver films that challenge instead of spoon-feed.

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