Once a year I go see a movie by myself, and in April, I've already used up my pass. With few truly exciting films in theaters and even fewer friends willing to go see so-so movies, I had to take it upon myself to drive the five minutes to the theater and pay my $7.50 to watch 21, the gambling movie that is likely to win its second weekend in a row. Fellow reviewer Robert Bell says, "21 is a decent film that should please mainstream moviegoers for the most part," and I have to agree with him. It isn't great, it isn't amazing, but it is entertaining, and worthwhile at least as a rental.
The movie, which is no Rounders, is about one young man named Ben (Jim Sturgess, from Across the Universe) who finds himself in a $300,000 hole upon his acceptance to Harvard Medical School. With no way to pay for his dream school, he gets lucky when his mathematics professor (Kevin Spacey) recruits him to join his Blackjack team, a small group of students who travel to Las Vegas every weekend to count cards and make hundreds of thousands of dollars. Ben, a mathematical genius, is chosen to be the head man, the guy who wins the big bucks while the others play "lookout." As with all gambling movies, things are going good until they aren't, and Ben must figure out a way to salvage everything he's lost.
21 is a slick and entertaining film from minute one. Robert Luketic, whose claim to fame is Legally Blonde, has done a fine job of filling his film with beautiful slow motion shots, montages and other camera tricks. The gambling subgenre is probably one of the few that can actually benefit from such a glossy presentation, and Luketic takes full advantage. At the same time, the movie is so full of visuals that at times you wonder if 15 minutes could have been shaved off the two-hour-plus running time to speed things up. Nevertheless, the direction compliments the story, which also relies heavily on stylized gambling action - after all, it's hard to make Blackjack too exciting without doing something with the camera.
Overall, I enjoyed the movie. Sturgess and Spacey both deliver good performances; Bosworth isn't particularly memorable, except that she's good looking. The Blackjack scenes are pretty entertaining, and the story itself moves at a fast enough clip. I wish a little more time had been spent on the Sturgess/Bosworth relationship; as is, it seems incomplete and lacking chemistry. The movie also stumbles a bit near the end, as it tries to wrap things up in an overly tidy manner. Luketic seems to back off some of his visual flair near the end, and the endings (plural, because I thought the movie could have ended a few times) are a bit abrupt and disjointed from the rest of the picture. I did like the mini-twist that reveals itself, though I have to wonder if it could have been handled with more intensity given a different director who has more experience dealing with thrillers.
21 is not without its flaws, and I would have spent more time focusing on the Sturgess/Bosworth relationship and less on a bunch of visual tricks, but the movie is entertaining and easy to enjoy. Again, it's no Rounders, but it's easily a gambling movie that can appeal to mainstream audiences.
Review by Robert Bell (B-)
Applying for a job, or scholarship, or really anything that requires validation from a complete stranger is an entirely degrading and insincere debacle. Required to sell ourselves, dress nice on the outside, and flash our pearly whites, we really act on our most parasitic and sycophantic instincts for personal gain. It's a bizarre social norm; casually telling someone they're not good enough for something and that another person is a more "suitable candidate". This is another in the long list of societal idiosyncrasies in an insincere world.
This is where 21 starts out. Ben Campbell (Jim Sturgess) is a highly capable and intelligent young man who has been accepted to the Harvard Medical School. There's just one snag - Ben doesn't have the money to go. In his scholarship application meeting, it is indicated to him that he isn't particularly "dazzling" and really has nothing that "jumps off the page".
Ironically, Ben has managed to "dazzle" one of his MIT professors, Micky Rosa (Kevin Spacey) who introduces Ben to an elite group of card counting con-artists including requisite love interest Jill Taylor (Kate Bosworth), resentful ex-golden boy Fisher (Jacob Pitts), quirky kleptomaniac Choi (Aaron Yoo), and milquetoast Kianna (Liza Lapira).
Quickly learning the trade, Ben and the gang embark on some zany blackjack endeavors in Las Vegas, rapidly earning money with little effort, and essentially feeding classic wish fulfillment fantasies.
21 is a highly kinetic, flashy, and colourful music-video dalliance. All style and no substance, the film succeeds on the base level of entertainment, but will unlikely fulfill a more discerning audience.
Seemingly determined to shed his cutesy chick-flick history, Robert Luketic has delivered a visually delicious little feast. The camera is constantly on the move, exploring all the colours, glossiness, and excitement of Las Vegas. Particularly noteworthy are the hyper-stylized Blackjack sequences, which under normal circumstances would be rather dull to watch. The movie certainly propels forward with gusto, but at the expense of story and credulity. Literally 40% of this movie is music montage, which should give an idea of the films depth and significance.
Ben's character is initially developed with some insight and care. He's stereotypically hesitant to enter this morally questionable world, but thankfully the script takes time to develop his moral ambiguities, mixed with his sexual desires for a teammate, and his need for praise from a father figure/professor. Unfortunately, some sloppy handling of his relationship with Bosworth's character, who herself never fully gels, and a poorly executed shift in character perspective ¾'s into the film, undo a lot of the careful character buildup. The story itself also starts out well enough, but struggles with credulity somewhere around the 2nd or 3rd climax.
Jim Sturgess is the perfect lead actor for this film. He has a nervous and self conscious confidence that makes him entirely engaging and identifiable. He demonstrates some range throughout 21, struggling mainly when the script takes some unfortunate turns. Kevin Spacey turns in a rather impressive supporting performance. He does this mainly through his smug, dominating, flirtation with both Ben and Fisher. It's an interesting balance he demonstrates, creating sexual tension and manipulation with unaware younger men. On the other hand, Kate Bosworth is never entirely convincing in her supporting girlfriend role. While she grows in grace and presence as an actress, she still struggles in fully connecting with her characters in a way that reaches out to the audience.
21 is a decent film that should please mainstream moviegoers for the most part. It's engaging, stylistically interesting, and features enough corny humor and stock characters to amuse the Friends crowd. It's just unfortunate that there isn't a lot to it beneath the surface. Mixing style and substance is hard, and it's a shame they so rarely go together successfully.
Review by Erik Samdahl unless otherwise indicated.
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