Loosely based on “Bringing Down the House,” the best-selling book by Ben Mezrich, “21” traces the involvement of MIT student Ben Campbell (Jim Sturgess) with the school’s underground group of card players, organized by professor Micky Rosa (Kevin Spacey). The team needs another player to join their trips to Las Vegas, where they count cards to turn the blackjack odds in their favor. Ben needs tuition money for Harvard Medical School and is soon seduced by the possibility of hitting it big with cards. The players lead a fantasy lifestyle during their excursions away from Cambridge until greed, jealousy, and casino security derail them.
From the opening credits, where the camera pans over the surfaces of playing cards to a dark, flashy casino club, the film is highly stylized and polished. It contains the requisite shots of Ben staring in wonder out the window of a limousine at the gleaming Las Vegas landscape—an unimaginative sequence that’s been repeated in countless other films. But it also features slick camera work that displays the blackjack game from Ben’s point of view and illustrates the nuances of the game to the uninitiated. The gaudy, dark casinos and dance clubs contrast with the bright, cozy images of Ben’s college life. The clash between these two worlds ultimately sends him on a downward spiral.
This downfall is never fleshed out, though, as in-depth characterization takes a backseat to the gambling plot. Despite the script’s lack of depth, Sturgess does a fine job of conveying Ben’s torn loyalties as he becomes increasingly engrossed in the team. The British actor’s one flaw is the inconsistency of his American accent; the rest of Ben’s underdevelopment is the fault of screenwriters Peter Steinfeld and Allan Loeb.
Likewise, Ben’s nerdy MIT friends and fellow cardsharks, like the cliché “hot-girl-in-a-geeky-school” Jill Taylor (Kate Bosworth), are simple caricatures. The unconvincing romance that develops between Ben and Jill is an afterthought seemingly thrown in to attract female ticket buyers. Their scenes together interrupt the action on the casino floor and slacken the movie’s otherwise fast pace.
Spacey is the only actor whose scenes are a welcome interruption from the gambling. He has perfected the art of playing cunning villains you love to hate, like John Doe in “Se7en,” and his Micky is no exception. As the mastermind behind the card-counting scheme, Spacey takes an underwritten role and creates a complex character with dark undertones. In true Spacey fashion, he is suitably creepy and always mysterious.
Despite failures in character development, the action—based on Mezrich’s own experiences—is genuinely interesting. A game of cards is not necessarily visually exciting, but “21” manages to keep the stakes high through crafty twists and Ben’s voice-over narration at the casino tables. The story might not be exceptionally inventive, but it is compelling. However, “21” sometimes becomes preachy about the broader ideas of greed and loses focus of personal goals, a divergence that feels out of place when the rest of the film glamorizes the Vegas lifestyle.
At the beginning of the movie, a Harvard admissions officer asks, “What can you tell me that’s going to dazzle me?” Ben responds with his story of enormous gain and loss in Vegas, but Luketic’s direction fails to answer this question in a meaningful way. But if one doesn’t need to be dazzled and settles for being simply entertained, the odds are in the house’s favor.