The new movie, which follows a team of blackjack card counters from MIT, should have stayed on the pages of the book upon which it was based. Unlike other films of Las Vegas lore, “21” doesn’t feature the grittiness of “Casino” or the charming wit of “Ocean’s Eleven.” What the film does feature, however, is monumental, melodramatic moments and lackluster directing that left me struggling to keep my $10 soda from squirting out my nose. In fact, the only redeeming quality of the film was the end, which came only after an excruciatingly slow two hours.
The story, based on the bestselling book “Bringing Down the House,” hinges on Ben Campbell (Jim Sturgess), a quiet MIT undergraduate who lacks the resources to attend Harvard Medical School. It is only after he is invited to join an established team of card counters that Ben sees a way to raise the $300,000 he needs to pay his way to becoming a doctor.
The team features four other students, including Ben’s schoolboy crush Jill Taylor (Kate Bosworth), as well as their leader, MIT professor Mickey Rosa (Kevin Spacey). Ben discovers that he is a whiz at card counting and starts raking in the cash, all the while abandoning his studious lifestyle and his best friends (one played by Josh Gad who channels an unfunny version of Jack Black). Not surprisingly, sooner rather than later, Ben finds himself in deeper than he can handle.
The writing is unquestionably where this film falls flat. There’s an old Hollywood adage that says you can’t make a good movie out of a bad script, and this is no more true than in the case of “21.” The film seems to force the concepts behind card counting and blackjack on the audience through unnatural speeches that divulge too much of the info through the dialogue.
For instance, Campbell is taught how to play blackjack early in the movie, but this crash course of game rules seems more intended for the audience than for Ben and fits awkwardly into the movie. The script is also chock full of one-liners that fall flat on their faces. The opening line is “winner, winner, chicken dinner,” and there are other nuggets of word un-wizardry sprinkled throughout, such as “you were born for this,” and “In Las Vegas, you can become anyone you want,” not to mention the nerd jokes — “We almost had a girl at our party!” — which become decreasingly funny after the second one.
The movie also seems to suffer from a cinematic and directorial standpoint. Director Robert Luketic, whose other efforts include “Legally Blonde” and “Win a Date with Tad Hamilton,” simply doesn’t know when to stop using slow motion. The movie probably wouldn’t feel as long as it is if there hadn’t been such a ridiculous amount of slow motion. There was slow motion so often that it became diluted and lost its power as a device.
Luketic also decided to shower the movie with montages that, when juxtaposed with the melodramatic scenes in between, only reminded me of the touching scene in “Zoolander” that results in a montage of Frappucino-drinking and gas-fighting.
“21” tries to present a complex story with complicated themes and motifs, but along the way it forgot what it should’ve been about — a team of young geniuses scamming hundreds of thousands of dollars from Las Vegas super casinos.
Instead, the film spends much of its time trying to elevate itself above the level of a generic heist movie. The mistake is that most moviegoers are in theaters to see a heist movie. Luketic devotes much of the two-hour running time to trying to build up Ben’s world to the audience that the money making, card-counting scheme gets relegated to a slow motion montage.
I enjoyed little about “21,” save for the bright neon lights of the Las Vegas strip making some beautiful shots of the glowing city. It’s a shame that the film came out as it did, because it featured a cast capable of so much more and a story that had potential to dazzle audiences.
Instead, the movie lost itself in trying to be more than what it was and transformed into a monster of bad pacing and over-emphasized emotions. “21” tried to bet the house but unfortunately for itself and audiences alike, it came up bust.
This review was originally published for the Collegiate Times, the student newspaper of Virginia Tech. Read the original publication.