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Overall Rating

Awesome: 3.45%
Worth A Look: 27.59%
Just Average: 13.79%
Pretty Crappy: 6.9%

3 reviews, 11 user ratings

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by Erik Childress

"Counting The Cliches Turns Out To Be More Exhausting"
1 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2008 SOUTH BY SOUTHWEST FILM FESTIVAL: Some people are not to be trusted with the keys to the kingdom. Especially that of the court jester who would have been dancing without a head midway through his second joke. Robert Luketic has enjoyed some reasonable success as the non-stylistic director of Legally Blonde, Win a Date with Tad Hamilton and the deplorable Jane Fonda comeback vehicle, Monster-in-Law. Heís not whom you would immediately associate with the chops to direct an action movie. Nor would you look at Ben Mezrichís ďBringing Down the HouseĒ, the real-life account of M.I.T. students who used their considerable math and memory skills to gang up on Las Vegas as fodder for anything resembling an ďactionĒ movie. Nevertheless thatís how Luketic described it during an introduction as the opening night film at this yearís South by Southwest Film Festival. Thatís right, folks. You have a director so inept that he doesnít even understand what genre heís working within and heís helped destroy potentially one of the most riveting and important social statements about Las Vegas the movies could have seen.

Changing names for a second time, our heroís guide is now Ben Campbell (Jim Sturgess) who has dreams of Harvard Medical School but spends his days with two buddies (Josh Gad & Sam Golzari) working on some robotics competition; his talents seemingly as confused as the filmís director. With six figures staring him in the face without a scholarship, heís presented the opportunity of a lifetime by his mathematics professor, Micky Rosa (Kevin Spacey). Invited to join a little after-hours study session where heís teaching a select group of students a perfected method of counting cards at blackjack, Ben is initially reluctant on some unexplained moral plain but is courted by Jill (Kate Bosworth), the blonde hottie heís had his eye on in the gym.

With straps of cash jammed under their clothes, Ben and his crew are bankrolled by Prof Rosa into luxury in Vegas. (None of them bother to ask how heís come upon such cash on a teaching salary.) The students work as a team, scouting out tables and signaling their bettors to come and sit down to a hot deck (i.e. lots of 10s) until they bleed it dry and live to score another day. That is unless eye-in-the-sky, Cole Williams (Laurence Fishburne) has anything to say about it. Heís one of the last naked eye spotters in Vegas security, a consultant hired out in a city increasingly more reliant on NASA-like software to spot cheaters and neíer-do-wells on the casino floor. And heís got his eye on the piles of cash being won by these young hotshots with the bad disguises and unsubtle arm foldings.

The existence of Cole Williams, one of the quintillion fictionalized aspects of 21, goes to the essence of where Peter Steinfeld (credited with Drowning Mona, Analyze That and Be Cool) and Allen Loebís screenplay fails to reach to the heights of an all-time great tale of Vegas. Not just a simplistic chapter in its rich history, but an encapsulation of its seduction and the hypocrisy of its promises. Come to Vegas and win the American dream, but donít ever think about introducing skill into our games of chance. Here are the odds but if you play to their advantage, youíre outta here. Fishburneís equalizer of sorts is supposed to represent the brand of bygone era that sin city embraced during the reign of organized crime. Backroom beatings and direct human interaction/interference. Not a horrible idea persay, but Steinfeld and Loeb donít have the scratch to follow it through to a more cerebral dissection of hard alley capitalist tactics or to the depths of the dying breed so well represented in Alec Baldwinís Oscar-nominated performance in Wayne Kramerís The Cooler. Instead they may as well have identified Fishburneís character in the script as ďPARTY POOPER.Ē

With all hopes of a more serious adult thriller dashed, weíre left with the odds of a rags-to-riches story in bubblegum wrapping satisfying our palettes with a fun ďha-ha look what they got away withĒ true story. But while the characters are busy counting cards, you can get wrapped up in the audience participation of counting the cliches in nearly every scene of the two-hours plus. Benís two nerdy friends as soon as they are introduced, particularly Gadís desperately annoying Jonah Hill-wannabe act, you know are destined to be pushed aside while he goes to play with his cool friends. (See: Canít Buy Me Love, Little Big League.) You know that someone on the team is going to feel outcast when the Prof takes a shine to the new kid (See: Two for the Money, a better and underappreciated tale about gambling.) Itís inevitable that Ben will become seduced by the cash and have a lapse in judgment that will put him at odds with the unforgiving mentor. (See: Boogie Nights or Two for the Money again just to get warmed-up.) A blind man can see the final twists in store during the oldest sting operation in the book and itís enough to make him poke his eyes out all over again.

As performed by the cast at hand, 21ís players arenít even worthy of our cheers let alone our investment. Jim Sturgess, who must have incriminating photos of someone over at Sony, is such a bland entity that the only read Hold ĎEm players would be able to pick up on his face is that of rigamortis. Bosworth, now in her third collaboration as Spacey from lover-to-Lois-Lane-to-student, is incapable of handling the demands of an alluring femme demure and her character as written with less purpose than a stack of chips. Spacey & Fishburne just by presence add some elder esteem to the proceedings but each are one-note caricatures with only hints at their history that could have provided a far more authoritative mano-a-mano. Worth mentioning again is the thoroughly galling performance by Josh Gad as Benís discarded buddy and Aaron Yoo between this (as a member of the team) and Disturbia, is single-handedly shooting down the stereotype that Asians are the brainiacs in the room. And standing next to Jim Sturgess, thatís saying a lot. (In reality, the original M.I.T. six were all of Asian descent.)

21ís screenplay and direction clearly deserve each other as they are equally on the journey of going bust with contradictory play, never knowing when to raise and always insisting on playing the house minimum with only two bits on the table. Like the inexplicable scene where Ben gives the correct count during a training session, under stealth twenty-five feet away from the cards on a system HE HASNíT EVEN LEARNED YET, Luketic has walked into a room well above his pay grade and miles beyond his understanding of basic filmmaking strategy. Granted, anything more than a one-camera setup with a swivel might seem like an action film to him but Luketic is keen on sparing us the little details like exactly how the count works or why itís bad to BET with your emotions but OK to whoop-and-holler like a hyena on fire for the cameras when youíre winning millions of dollars under a system thatís supposed to be under the radar. (Like getting twenty strippers to launder your winnings ALL AT THE SAME TIME!) Itís pretty sad when a glossy Hollywood film like 21 can be so emphatically upstaged by a History Channel recreation of the same events. But if you want to see the same story, told in less than half the running time and more detail then seek out 2004ís Breaking Vegas and, as Joe Pesci might put it, tell Luketic to take 21 and shove it up his ass along with the rest of his resume.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=16821&reviewer=198
originally posted: 03/28/08 00:00:00
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2008 South By Southwest Film Festival For more in the 2008 South By Southwest Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

11/27/08 little Red good not great 3 stars
10/11/08 damalc nothing special but worth watching. pretty standard hollywood fare. 3 stars
7/25/08 mike boring and annoying movie. very disappointed 1 stars
5/24/08 ladavies not bad, close to the book 4 stars
5/11/08 Monday Morning OK but fell short on character dvlmt. and tension. KS was fun to watch but not worth $9. 3 stars
4/06/08 Captain Highcrime you tell me how this is better than ANY episode of "Card Sharks." 3 stars
4/06/08 Stephanie Bruce I thought this was a great movie 4 stars
4/05/08 Max I agree, but a "teacher's salary" at M.I.T is over six figures my friend. 2 stars
4/02/08 shaw Not for second time 2 stars
3/30/08 Giap vu sucked balls! 1 stars
3/28/08 Renee Griffin Really Good have to see again 5 stars
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  28-Mar-2008 (PG-13)
  DVD: 22-Jul-2008

  11-Apr-2008 (12A)

  15-May-2008 (M)

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