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  21

Starring: Kevin Spacey, Jim Sturgess, Kate Bosworth, Laurence Fishburne

Directed by: Robert Luketic

Produced by: Kevin Spacey, Dana Brunetti, Michael de Luca

Written by: Allan Loeb, Peter Steinfeld

Distributor: Sony Pictures Releasing

 

     Skeptics may dismiss 21 as a low-grade, teen-targeted remake of Oceanís 11 that cheats in legitimizing itself by cheekily reminding its audience that itís based on a true story. If the film were about gambling, they might be right. However, 21 is as much about blackjack as Million Dollar Baby was about boxing. Yes, the game provides a backdrop for the central action, but the movie is far more about internal conflict than it is about high-rollers winning lots of money. True-story or not, 21 speaks a profound amount about what it means to be a wide-eyed, collegiate-aged young man Ė a subject that, I admit, I am the target-audience for.

     The viewer first meets protagonist Ben Campbell (Jim Sturgess), a soon-to-be-graduate of Bostonís prestigious M.I.T., as he is being interviewed for a coveted scholarship that will allow him to attend Harvard Medical School. As he settles down to talk, Ben is asked by his interviewer what separates him from the Next Applicant. Sure, he has a 4.0 at one of the most rigorous universities in America, heís designing a robot with his friends that will undoubtedly go on to win awards, and heís involved in dozens of extracurricular clubs. But nearly everybody applying for the scholarship can boast these things; theyíre all typical Ivy-League geniuses.

     What distinguishes Ben from the rest of the pack is what follows the interview lead-up in 21. 1994. After Benís mathematical talents are realized during one class-period by elusive professor Micky Rosa (Kevin Spacey), Rosa lures Ben into an underground after-school club he runs to train gifted students how to count cards in blackjack. Despite Benís initial apprehension to joinóthe practice of counting is, of course, against casino-rulesóhe realizes that he could make enough money to pay for Harvard if his scholarship doesnít come through. Rosa takes only a 50% cut of the winnings and even pays for the students to travel to Las Vegas to play on the weekends.

     Ben learns the craft of counting cold, just as one would expect of someone of his intellectual capacity, and begins to win big with the help of his teammates. Unfortunately, his ego gets to him when thousands of dollars of cash begin to stack up in the ventilation-system that shares a ceiling with his dorm-room. One evening, Ben lets his common-sense fly out the window and sticks to a table despite being disadvantaged by the count, losing nearly all of the money that the group allotted for that weekend in Vegas. Fuming, Rosa decides to make Benís life a living hell, stealing back all of Benís earnings and dropping Ben from his class, which Ben is required to take in order to graduate. Not to mention, casino-employee Cole Williams (Laurence Fishburne) is hot on Benís tale, recognizing that he may have a card-counter in need of a beating on his hands when watching numerous surveillance tapes.

     A lot happens in 21, but the movie consistently proves most fascinating in the way that it depicts Benís struggle to come to grips with the extraordinary situation that he finds himself in. Initially, Ben lives in a secluded world amongst fellow Ivy-Leaguers; the only problem he faces is that if he doesnít find enough money to attend Med School, he may end up making $100,000 a year instead of $300,000. Itís fascinating to watch him thrust so quickly into a polar-opposite situation due to a few surreal choices that his life allows him to make. Suddenly, Ben is on a powerful shit-list in Vegas, finds himself in a position in which he may not graduate from M.I.T., and ends up once again entirely broke.

     The movieís story is wildóIím sure screenwriters Peter Steinfeld and Alison Loeb took some liberties in embellishing the actual oneóbut it is thankfully depicted with the utmost degree of realism. Ben is conveyed as a sympathetic, authentic twenty-two-year-old and, to a certain extent, the problems that he faces in 21 serve as exaggerated versions of those that all guys his age grapple with. His social angst and uncertain feelings about the future, while exacerbated by late nights in Vegas and ethical questions he faces about his behavior, can be intimately related to by most people of his age (myself included). The biggest reason for this is that lead actor Jim Sturgess gives a wonderful, compassionate performance in the role; he doesnít try to make Ben into an overly snazzy guy or a geeky clichť. Instead, Sturgess channels what a student smart enough to get into Harvard Med School might really look and act like, and the results are expectedly perfect. Ben comes off as being as much an average guy as he is a math genius, a nuanced combination that mustíve proved undeniably tough for the actor to nail. With terrific work in Across the Universe and this film under his belt thus far, I canít wait to see where Sturgess takes his career in the future.

     Alongside Sturgess, the rest of the cast is equally believable and captivating. Kevin Spacey plays Rosa in a pretty one-dimensional-villain sort of way, but the approach works because it ensures that the audience never questions its unconditional sympathy for Ben. Playing Benís teammate/romantic-interest whoís just as sexy as she is smart, Kate Bosworth makes a nice return to the silver-screen, not having appeared in a film since 2006ís Superman Returns. Straightforward as 21 may be from a narrative standpoint, everyone involved ensures that it is delivered with all of the complexity and vigor that it deserves. What a thoughtful, entertaining treat the film is!

-Danny Baldwin, Bucket Reviews

Review Published on: 3.25.2008

Screened on: 3.4.2008 at the AMC Century City 15 in Century City, CA.

 

21 is rated PG-13 and runs 122 minutes.


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