When Kevin Spacey’s character, Mickey Rosa, declared, partway through 21, that his young protégé Ben had a brain “like a Pentium chip,” I did a double take. First, did I hear that line correctly? And second, was it an indicator that this was a period piece set 15 years ago, when “Pentium” was cutting-edge technology, instead of Intel’s budget CPU line? Or was it just ersatz “geek talk” from a pair of screenwriters who wouldn’t know a GPU from the GPL?
No, a single line of clunky dialogue isn’t a deal-breaker, but in its two-hour running time, 21 doesn’t boast a single authentic moment. It’s ostensibly the story of a group of MIT math nerds who conspire, under the tutelage of brilliant, corrupt professor Rosa (Spacey is back in snarling, Swimming With Sharks mode), to earn millions by counting cards at Vegas blackjack tables. They develop a simple role-playing system that allows them to stake out the tables and communicate through sign language without tipping off the dealers or casino management that they’re in cahoots. When the ongoing count reveals that a deck is running “hot” — that the undealt portion is rich with the 10s and face cards that make the game more profitable for savvy players — one of the team members swoops in, plays dumb, and starts betting big.
We experience the gloss and neon of Las Vegas — contrasted effectively with the relative drabness of everyday Boston and Cambridge — through the sharp, brown and heavily browed eyes of young Ben Campbell (Jim Sturgess), a whiz kid with the chops but not the dough to attend Harvard Medical School. He achieves a kind of self-actualization but (of course!) loses sight of his roots. Playing the closest thing this movie has to a colorful character, Laurence Fishburne is a back-room heavy on the steep downhill slope toward the expiration date for old-school Vegas enforcers. His job is making sure this brand of nerd doesn’t get away with gaming the system for long.
It sounds pretty good, and I can’t deny that the film has a certain seductiveness. Director Robert Luketic (Legally Blonde; Monster-in-Law) approaches the material with a practiced breeziness, like there’s no reason we wouldn’t empathize with a boy genius en route to a degree from M.I.T. who couldn’t scrape together $300,000 for medical school. (Also, he steals from the best, cribbing a famous shot wholesale from Chungking Express.) Cinematographer Russell Carpenter (Titanic, Charlie’s Angels), wields a high-res digital camera, capturing silky, saturated images that make the sin-city beauty shots look even better than the actors. It’s been said that this is a star-making performance for Sturgess, and it’s true that he’s an attractive fella with a handsome smile and a winning smirk who emotes generously and accurately — the problem here is surely not that Sturgess can’t take direction. And if Kate Bosworth, playing the inevitable love interest, is so pale and slim that she sometimes threatens to disappear from the screen altogether, it would be churlish to deny that she, too, brings the sexy. When, after weeks of playing hard to get, she suddenly straddles Sturgess at a Vegas strip club and lays a smacker on him, there’s a reasonable frisson to the gesture.
But what does it have to do with anything? These are good-looking kids, but in this context libido is generic; some 21-year-old boy’s success or failure at getting laid is close to the least interesting thing about the story. Trouble is, none of the interesting stuff pans out. You might wonder what happens when a bunch of kids who’ve spent their lives with their noses in textbooks are suddenly catapulted to the top of the social pecking order — if only for the weekend — but beyond Ben’s pithy explication of the Monty Hall problem, the characters never behave like the clever eggheads they’re supposed to be, and the two token Asian-Americans apparently cast for geek cred (Aaron Yoo from Disturbia and Liza Lapira, seen in Cloverfield) barely do anything at all. Per my research, the protagonists in the real-life story were apparently Asian-American; Harold & Kumar Go to Las Vegas would be lots more fun as well as more sociologically astute.
Complaints about bland characterization and generic formula can be shoved aside by a strong story that just steamrolls such concerns, but after a reasonably strong first hour 21 descends into nonsense — the plot points are as phony-baloney as the green-screen Vegas backdrops behind the high-roller suites. I mean, does any callow idiot really leave hundreds of thousands of dollars, unattended, in his freaking dorm room? And, sure, it’s plausible that a even a routine like this, lucrative into six figures, could collapse under the weight of personality conflicts, jealousy, and the general boneheadedness of youth, but as depicted here, Ben’s abrupt crash-and-burn in a conflagration of self-regard and nihilism is frustratingly arbitrary. Mickey’s assessment of the situation is so spot-on — “you arrogant little infant,” he spits — that, even after it becomes apparent that he’s the film’s real villain, it’s also clear that he’s the only adult in the room. Through the thuddingly obvious twists and turns of the final act — unsuccessfully juiced by the screenplay’s superficially nonlinear approach to the story, which half-heartedly conceals Ben’s motivations in the last couple of reels — I found myself actually pulling for him, not just because he rocks a pleasantly ridiculous accent with his Texas sideburns, but also because, amid the generic Anyboy meets Anygirl hubbub, it was nice to root for a dastardly grown-up with a clue. C-