Stop me if you’ve heard this one.
M.I.T. student Ben Campbell (Jim Sturgess) has a brilliant mind. He has been accepted into Harvard medical school but has no money to pay for it. Enter Professor Micky Rosa (Kevin Spacey), who leads a group of similarly brilliant students who go on weekend jaunts to Las Vegas, counting cards and playing high-rollers.
The group has a complex system that even the most savvy casino security experts have trouble spotting. Ben sees the group as a means to pay for med school and to be near the prettiest girl in school, Jill Taylor (Kate Bosworth).
However, hanging with the cool kids for the first time and raking in gross amounts of chips makes Ben greedy.
(I’ll bet you’re shocked by that, aren’t you?) He betrays his loyal, geeky friends, Miles (Josh Gad) and Cam (Sam Golzari), and is pursued by an intimidating pit boss (Laurence Fishburne).
The film is based on a true story, which the real Ben (Mezrich) chronicled in the book "Bringing Down the House." The story has also been covered by seemingly every news program in America. Even if the story weren’t familiar, though, the movie is so formulaic that we know what’s coming next from the time we walk into the theatre. The characters in the movie might have good poker faces, but this movie has tells all over the place.
They rip off "Casino," "The Color of Money," "Rounders" and pretty much all other movies involving either gambling or cards. Heck, this isn’t even the first movie based on Mezrich’s book!
The movie is so full of montages highlighting Vegas architecture and nightlife it would make a fine promotional ad for the city. It’s also the same type of aerial footage we have seen in countless other films and continue to see in a handful of television shows every week.
So I guess if you’ve never seen a Vegas movie, never watched a TV show set in Vegas, and never seen another gambling film, you might be dazzled.
With a young cast, it usually falls to the elder cast members to anchor the film. In this case, the young actors do fine and it’s the veterans who blow it. Fishburne is stuck in a recycled role to begin with, but he inexplicably develops a New Jersey accent midway through the film.
Spacey is his usual, over-acting self. Don’t get me wrong, Spacey is a very charming guy. Just ask him. I haven’t seen an actor this full of himself since Al Pacino in "Scent of a Woman." It’s also laughable when Spacey pops up in a costume stolen from either Robin Williams in "August Rush" or Bono in "Across the Universe" or any number of the ex-hippies living in my neighborhood in the early Seventies.
Unfortunately, most of the movie’s laughs are unintentional.
For instance, Ben is supposed to be the most intelligent person anyone has ever met, yet he hides his money in the ceiling of his dorm room. (Want to lay money on what happens to the cash?)
"21" takes itself very seriously but never convinces us we should. It’s slick-looking and at times enjoyable on a strictly visual level, but it doesn’t have much else to offer.
Jeff Marker is a media studies professor at Gainesville State College.