March 31, 2008

"Winner Winner, Chicken Dinner"

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21 has all of the elements required of a great movie. The cast is top-notch, the soundtrack is amazing and the photography itself does a fantastic job of keeping the viewer focused, adding the perfect amount of emphasis to important scenes. The problem, and perhaps the film’s greatest flaw, is that these accomplishments do not fit together well enough to make a movie to which people will keep coming back. 21 is a great experience and worth the price of admission, but don’t expect a memorable movie that will become the staple of your dorm DVD collection.
21 is a dramatic interpretation of the real life events described in Bringing Down the House, a best-selling book by Ben Mezrich. Ben Campbell (Jim Sturgess) is a senior at MIT who has just accepted to Harvard Medical School. Total tuition for the school runs at about $300,000, which Ben simply cannot afford. What luck, then, that Professor Micky Rosa (Kevin Spacey) approaches him with the proposition of winning big money counting cards in games of blackjack at casinos. Ben must decide which is more important: his fantastically awkward best friends or the glamorous life of a Las Vegas high roller. The deal is sweetened when the beautiful rocket science student, Jill Taylor (Kate Bosworth), personally invites Ben to join up. If this whole scenario seems familiar, it’s probably because you’ve heard variations of the story before. 21 is a very formulaic movie and audiences can easily divine the sudden but inevitable betrayals, the romantic side-plots and the eventual solution to Ben’s Harvard tuition conundrum.
This shouldn’t necessarily be construed as a bad thing, however. Predictability gives 21 the sense of unavoidability it needs to stay grounded in reality. The very first scene indicates that these kids are going to get busted, so the viewer immediately knows that there will be a relatively plausible resolution and the credits won’t role with five MIT students taking Vegas for millions consequence-free. There are few (if any) totally unbelievable moments, and 21 is better off for it. Director Robert Luketic successfully skirts the fine line between real-life story and overdone Vegas spectacle to prevent the film from turning into just another Ocean’s 11.
Also to its credit, the movie makes the complicated system of statistics and probability used in counting cards accessible to general audiences. There is a cursory explanation of the math behind the students’ success, but the focus is on code words and signals that allow the con to work. While this eliminates mathematical calculations from the viewing experience, so the average movie-goer will easily be able to follow, it also means that ambitious movie-goers (Ivy League students, perhaps) can’t follow the technical side of things because the “specific set of rules’”that Spacey’s character goes on about is never established. In the end though, the kids are winning, which is all the audience really cares about.
Of course, nobody would care if the actors weren’t any good. Fortunately, 21 offers wonderful performances from the three leads. Jim Sturgess does a great job as a brilliant MIT senior who is starting to feel as if his lifetime of academic excellence might have come at the expense of the “life experiences” that people only experience when young. Kate Bosworth holds her ground as a substantial female lead and brings strength and presence to what could have been a sidekick girlfriend role. Kevin Spacey is excellent as a megalomaniacal professor, but doesn’t have as much screen time as the other actors. This works out very well because Spacey overshadows the younger cast members at times. By mixing the strengths of Spacey, Bosworth and Sturgess, the ensemble is believable and entertaining.
Characters and story aside, the production value of 21 is excellent. The soundtrack and music cues were chosen perfectly, with the possible exception of a remix of the Rolling Stones’ “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” during the end credits. (As an aside — give the song a chance. It’ll grow on you.)
The movie is also visually impressive. There are sweeping shots of Ben riding his bicycle around Boston, fantastic angles inside casinos and terrific editing cuts. These shots, as well as the soundtrack, are ingrained into the fabric of the movie so that they never seem out of place.
It is disappointing, however, that all of this good work will eventually fade into the background. Yes, the acting is good. Yes, the cinematography is great. What’s lacking is a reason to remember this movie. Despite its accomplishments, 21 doesn’t stand out when compared to other films with similar credentials, but that doesn’t mean you won’t really enjoy it. Go see this film while it’s in theaters; at the very least, it’s a great date movie. If you don’t have a date, you still owe it to yourself to take the time to go see some young intellectuals try to win tuition money in Vegas. Daniel Ocean would be proud.