Wednesday, April 2, 2008

‘21’ is a house of cards built on quicksand

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Colombia TriStar Marketing Group Inc.
Ben Campbell (Jim Sturgess) learns how to count cards and beat the odds in Las Vegas in ‘‘21.”

Rated PG-13. 116 minutes.

Gambling thriller.

Cast: Kevin Spacey, Jim Sturgess, Kate Bosworth, Laurence Fishburne.Director: Robert Luketic.

‘‘21” is framed by a scholarship interview between a nerdish Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) overachiever and a starchy Harvard Medical School alumnus. The latter tells the hopeful kid, yes, you have a superlative record, but the field is full of superlative applicants. What experience do you have to set you apart from everyone else? The answer Ben Campbell (Jim Sturgess) offers: ‘‘21.”

The movie is based on Ben Mezerich’s ‘‘Bringing Down the House,” a purportedly true story of how a group of MIT students figured out how to take Las Vegas at blackjack during the 1990s. It’s fun in the dazzle of get-rich-quick schemes as well as the promise that the swollen pride will be taken down a peg or two. It’s less fun as a tired cautionary tale, a pure studio exercise that hardly misses a preordained note.

The movie is also faintly depressing (or cheering, depending on age) — something to do with the old saying about youth and talent being no match for age and treachery.

In any case, Ben is recruited for a secret five-member team of the most gifted undergraduates. They train to count cards and game the system, and then periodically jet from Boston to Las Vegas with fake identities and return with bulging satchels. It’s all fun — and then it isn’t.

A cascade of morals follows, with all the awful inevitability of a bowling ball at the top of the stairs, and finally casino losses attract the attention of security chief Cole Williams (Laurence Fishburne).

‘‘21” offers confusions and howlers. The prettiest girl at MIT is on hand to fog Ben’s good sense when fogging is required. Kate Bosworth, Aaron Yoo, Liza Lapira and Jacob Pitts, as the other members of the team, occupy hand-me-down roles that hardly register.

Why card counting should be verboten is beyond me, except as a warning to punters, but in ‘‘21,” doing so will get you an interview of a different sort: in the basement, with brass knuckles.

Apparently, the moviemakers felt obliged to take a sad, censuring look at human folly, but their hearts are not in it; instead, they twinkle, as we do, with wicked zest for the movie’s two treacherous old veterans. Kevin Spacey is swift and dangerous as an MIT professor of non-linear math and a practiced seducer of young minds. Fishburne projects a capacity for elegant intimidation and intelligent brutality, even in repose.

Their tag-teaming plus the film’s backstage business, all the formal patterning of one sting blossoming within another, are undeniably fascinating. This should be especially true for those of us who never before heard the phrase, ‘‘winner winner chicken dinner.”