Against the odds, 21 is a routine telling of a fascinating true story, writes Michael Dwyer
21 Directed by Robert Luketic. Starring Jim Sturgess, Kevin Spacey, Kate Bosworth, Laurence Fishburne, Jacob Pitts, Aaron Yoo, Liza Lapira 12A cert, gen release, 123 min
THIS hybrid of Good Will Hunting and Ocean’s Eleven stars Jim Sturgess as a shy, bright Boston student tempted by the lure of lucre to apply his mathematical skills at the blackjack tables of Las Vegas.
In his senior year at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Sturgess’s Ben Campbell doubles as a menswear salesman as he vainly struggles to raise the six-figure sum that would put him through Harvard Medical School. Enter Mephistophelean maths lecturer Micky Rosa (Kevin Spacey) who gives private late-night classes in gambling techniques to selected students. Impressed by Ben’s response to a multiple choice question, and by the young man’s option for logic over emotion, Micky coaxes Ben to join the team.
Micky’s plan involves coaching his team in counting cards and using a sign language of their own, a code associating key words and numbers, and a range of disguises. Initially reluctant, Ben is swayed by the overtures of Jill (Kate Bosworth), a student he first observes bathed in golden light while she works out at the college gym.
It’s appropriate that MGMT’s infectiously catchy Time to Pretend plays over the movie’s opening credits and, this being a morality tale, that The Rolling Stones song You Can’t Always Get What You Want runs over the closing credits.
The set-up is intriguing, reminiscent of the entertaining BBC TV series Hustle. It is based on Ben Mezrich’s 2002 non-fiction bestseller, Bringing Down the House, which carried the self-explanatory subtitle, The Inside Story of Six MIT Students Who Took Vegas for Millions.
However, 21’s execution and resolution suggest that the book has been diluted to a simplistic treatment in its journey to the screen, and it now follows the familiar trajectory of a shy novice who becomes master of his game, but with sentimentalised, moralising consequences.
The movie’s Australian director Robert Luketic, whose speciality is froth (Monster-in-Law, Legally Blonde), seems in awe of Las Vegas in all its garishness as the camera swoops and swoons over the city. Luketic ought to have paid more attention to his cast, in which only Sturgess, the engaging English actor who emerged in Across the Universe, is impressive.
Spacey, who co-produced the film and curls his lips in a permanent smirk, and Laurence Fishburne as a casino heavy, proceed resolutely on auto-pilot.
Card shark: a bewigged Kate Bosworth in