21Reviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 03/29/08 22:26:13
Now that you mention it, I have seen more than my fair share of cruddy movies during the first three months of 2008–a collection of cinematic gumdrops ranging from such seemingly promising disappointments as “The Other Boylen Girl” to brain-dead junk like “Jumper” and “10,000 B.C.” to such what-were-they-thinking? monstrosities as “Penelope,” “Vantage Point” and the upcoming “Chapter 27.” And yet, with the possible exception of the misguided and exploitative “Chapter 27,” I can’t easily recall a film that I hated as much as I hated the gambling drama “21.” This is a slick, soulless nightmare of a film with the moral center of a porno flick (not to mention the same narrative drive) and a central character so shallow, loathsome and uninteresting that you keep hoping that the guys from “Funny Games” will show up and give him exactly what he deserves. Alas, he turns out to be our hero and since this is the kind of brainless Hollywood product where the hero has to triumph over all adversity, no matter how little he may deserve it, we are forced to watch him triumph over all adversity when all we want to do is see someone stick his head in the nearest vise.The schmuck in question is Ben Campbell (Jim Sturgess), a supposedly brilliant math whiz at M.I.T. who dreams of getting into Harvard Medical School. Unfortunately, that costs about $300,000 and he discovers to his horror that the scholarship that he feels that he deserves–after all, he has always wanted to go to Harvard Medical School and he is apparently the single most brilliant mind to ever come out of M.I.T.–is coveted by other people as well and he fears that his application essay may not demonstrate to the judging committee that he deserves it much more than, say, that pesky one-legged Vietnamese kid who won it last year. While fretting about how to make himself seem more special than he already clearly is in the essay, his mathematical skills is noticed by one of his professors, Mickey Rosa (Kevin Spacey), and he is summoned to a clandestine meeting with the teacher and four fellow math whiz classmates. It seems that Rosa has been training them to deploy their amazing math and counting skills in the service of that most notable of professions–counting cards at the blackjack tables in Vegas, a technique that, while not illegal, is something that the casinos tend to frown upon in ways that usually involve a crowbar to the kneecaps. Naturally, Rosa wants Ben to join the team but at first, Ben turns them down but is finally lured into joining up thanks to the persuasive techniques of team member Jill (Kate Bosworth) and plans to stick around just long enough to earn the $300,000 (which he really needs now that he has inexplicably told his trusting mom that he already won the scholarship).
After getting the hang of card-counting, learning the secret codes that his fellow players employ and discovering how to function under pressure without succumbing to emotion or panic (a method that apparently involves the rental of an entire Chinese restaurant and its patrons), Ben jets off to Vegas and uses his mad math skills to make loads of money. For a while, all is swell, Ben is making money hand over fist and even gets to overlook the rule about inter-team relationships with Jill but before long, things inevitably begin to sour. Away from the tables, Ben’s newfound success begins to go to his head and he starts blowing off his old friends and the robotics project that they have been working on for over a year. On the gaming floor, his success earns the scorn of the team’s former top gun (Jacob Pitts), who begins drunkenly crashing games while making references to “Rainman,” and earns the notice of security chief Cole Williams (Laurence Fishburne), who is exceptionally eager to capture card counters as his entire way of living is in danger of going the way of laserdiscs and movie critics thanks to high-tech security software. Eventually, Ben gets too big for his britches and loses his money, his friends, his pseudo-mentor and all his Vegas privileges when Cole catches up with him one exceptionally bad night. Of course, this is merely the grim prologue before an unbelievable finale involving chases, disguises and people acting completely out of character for no other reason than because if they don’t, our hero won’t get the happy ending that he so thoroughly doesn’t deserve.
Although I wasn’t exactly a member of the “21" fan club for the majority of its running time, it was this absurd climax that finally pushed my feelings into outright loathing. (Those of you who are still inexplicably planning on seeing this film should probably skip over the next two paragraphs.) Our “hero” is a vain, whiny, self-absorbed, self-pitying twerp who abandons his old friends at the drop of a hat, lies to his mother and, as the direct result of his own massive ego, winds up losing his money, his new friends, his potential future at Harvard Medical School, his current future at M.I.T. and single-handedly ruptures what had been a profitable enterprise before he came in. Now a decent film–a film that had some intelligence behind it–might have seen all of this as a cautionary tale about the dangers of putting all your faith into something that claims to be a sure thing when common sense would seem to dictate that there are enough variables in the world to ensure that such things don’t exist. This film might have ended with our hero poorer but wiser for the experience and using what he has so painfully learned in order to become a better person. Alas, that is the kind of ending that tends to bum out the mallrat audiences that this film is obviously being pitched to and so screenwriters Peter Steinfeld and Allan Loeb and director Robert Luketic (the auteur of the not-too-bad “Legally Blonde,” the pretty bad “Win a Date With Tad Hamilton” and the fairly unspeakable “Monster-in-Law”) have instead decided to change things slightly by coming up with a more conventionally “up” finale that goes to such elaborate lengths to ensure that the lead character triumphs over adversity that you can almost hear them grunting in the background from the sheer exertion required to pull this off.
Now, Ben not only triumphs over adversity but everything inexplicably seems to fall into place for him–his old friends immediately forgive him for his trespasses, his mother doesn’t seem to mind that he has been lying to her for months, he gets to pull a final run at the tables in Vegas that sees him walking away with thousands of dollars in his pocket, the willowy blonde teammate on his arm and his former mentor awaiting his fate at the hands of casino security and the IRS. Hell, he even gets to recount his tale of skipping school and becoming a casino jockey to the dean of admissions at Harvard Medical school and the guy is apparently so impressed that we get the sense that not only will he be giving Ben the scholarship over those lame students who merely excelled at their studies, he may even rescind last year’s scholarship from that one-legged Vietnamese punk and give that to Ben as well. The film even has the sheer audacity to top this moment by having the end credits scored to the sound of the Rolling Stones singing about how you can't always get what you want! In other words, Ben gets everything he wants even though he hasn’t done a single thing to deserve or earn any of it other than to be lucky enough to be the central character of a film so morally and ethically bankrupt that it makes “Fever Pitch” (the gambling movie with Ryan O’Neal, not the romantic comedy with Drew Barrymore) seem coherent and responsible by comparison. If you have seen “Fever Pitch,” you know what I am talking about. If you haven’t, I can almost guarantee that seeking out and watching that film would be a better investment of your valuable time and money that sitting through “21"–the fact that this may be the first time in the history of mankind in which watching “Fever Pitch” was considered to be a smarter use of your time and money should serve to indicate just how reprehensibly awful “21" really is.
“21" was based on Ben Mezrich’s best-selling non-fiction book “Bringing Down the House: The Inside Story of Six M.I.T. Students Who Took Vegas for Millions” and while I haven’t actually read the book–in my mind, the only thing that could possibly be more boring than listening to some guy droning on and on about how he has figured out a system for winning at cards is reading a book from some guy droning on and on about how he has figured out a system for winning at cards–but from what I understand, the film bears little resemblance to the actual story. That isn’t too hard to believe because there isn’t a single aspect of this film that feels realistic or believable for a second. You would think that the filmmakers would want to try to make things as realistic as possible to add an extra layer to the proceedings–remember how Martin Scorsese’s “Casino” worked both as a sprawling gangster saga and as an obsessively detailed behind-the-scenes look at how the casinos do everything in their power to tilt the already outrageous odds against customers winning everything even further in their direction?–but everything here is done in the broadest manner possible so that even the dullest audiences members can figure out what is going on.
Early on, for example, our hero celebrates his 21st birthday with his mother and his two brainiac pals and is presented with a cake with a series of numbers on it–it turns out that the numbers are none other than the first digits of the famous Fibonacci sequence and the next number up in the set is 21. Okay, that is a nice detail–the kind of thing that a math geek would have on a cake–but the film immediately ruins it by then having him explain to his friends, who are also math whizzes, what the Fibonacci sequence is and why those numbers are significant even though they presumably know it inside out. Let’s say that I was having a birthday party and invited my fellow critics–if I had a cake with an image from the shower scene from “Psycho” on it, do you think that I would then have to explain who Alfred Hitchcock was to them? Yes, this is a little thing but it is precisely the kind of little thing that can be really annoying because it rings horribly false and because there is no earthly reason for it to be there in the first place.
If this had been the only time that there was such a moment, I suppose I could have let it slide but it turns out to be the first of many. Instead of allowing us to learn this intricate counting system through our hero’s eyes, he turns up outside the door of a clandestine meeting and instantly cracks the entire thing even before he has been shown how the thing works in the first place–this, of course, means that he is either the kind of supergenius who would give John Nash and Will Hunting pause or that the much-vaunted system isn’t that big of a deal in the first place. While in the casinos, our heros utilize hand gestures, secret code words and disguises in order to pull off their scams but they are presented in such an over-the-top manner that they feel like the kind of hand gestures, secret code words and disguises that might be employed by the “Airplane!” guys if they ever got around to spoofing gambling movies. In one of the most egregiously ridiculous moments, our heroes that they are going to have a problem cashing in their chips and hit upon the idea of having the dancers at the nearby strip joint cash them in for them by pretending that they are actually tips. Okay, that is the kind of detail that might have happened in but the film immediately ruins it by cutting to the ludicrous sight of a long line of pole dancers all cashing in the chips at the same time while our heroes are standing nearby chuckling about how clever they are. (A look at the credits reveals that uberhack Brett Ratner was one of the executive-producers of “21" and while I don’t know for sure, my guess is that this particular scene is the one where he earned his money.)
Fittingly, the characters and performances turn out to be just as one-dimensional and unconvincing as the events that they are participating in. You may recall Jim Sturgess from his leading role in last year’s mind-boggling Beatles botch “Across the Universe” and while he isn’t quite as bad here as he was in that film (mostly because we can be relatively safe in assuming that he isn’t suddenly going to burst into a karaoke rendition of “Strawberry Fields Forever” at any minute) but he has no idea of how to make the essentially loathsome character that he is playing into someone who is at least compelling in his creepiness and you never believe for a second that he is some kind of math prodigy–he seems to vacant to convince us of his constantly whirring mind. As the object of his affections, Kate Bosworth is, if anything, even more blandly unconvincing than Sturgess and while she is pretty to look at, she soon finds herself being outacted by the wigs that she is occasionally compelled to don. Kevin Spacey does his standard slickly sleazy schtick once again but even he seems bored by the material that he has been given this time around. The fellow members of the team seem to have only been added as afterthoughts–Jacob Pitts gets one note to play, the former king of the hill who can’t handle being upstaged by the new guy, and bangs it relentlessly until you grow sick of him long before you are supposed to (and it doesn’t help matters much that Pitts bears an unfortunately close resemblance to Ron Weasley from the “Harry Potter” films) and Aaron Yoo and Liza Lapira are given so little to do that you get the sense that the only reason that their characters exist is to serve as a poignant reminder that in the real-life story that “21" is based on, the students were apparently all Asians. The only person who emerges from this film with a little bit of dignity intact is Laurence Fishburne as the security ace who realizes that his profession is on the way out in the name of technological progress but even he is unable to overcome the hoops that his character is forced to jump through in his final scenes.Look, if you want to see a good movie about Vegas or gambling and the highs and lows that come with trying to beat the system, there are any number of excellent titles that I could point you towards. There is Robert Altman’s “California Split,” in which Elliot Gould and George Segal play a couple of degenerate gamblers who will bet on anything. There is Karel Reisz’s “The Gambler,” a great and sadly underrated film (based on a screenplay by James Toback) in which James Caan delivered one of his best performances as a smart man who gets so hooked on the energy that he derives from the thrill of gambling–not necessarily the winning–that he is compelled to keep it up even when he knows that doing so may well destroy his entire life. Martin Scorsese’s “Casino” painted an indelible portrait of Vegas during its mob-controlled heyday and Wayne Kramer’s “The Cooler” was an equally keen observation of how that heyday has been effectively erased by equally ruthless corporate behemoths who have succeeded in transforming the down into an ersatz Disneyworld. These films are smart and thoughtful works that were made by people who actually had something to say about the nature of Vegas and what goes through the mind of the average gambler who thinks that he or she can beat the system against all odds and did so in smart and incisive ways. Alas, it would seem that none of the people involved with “21" ever saw any of those movies because if they did, they would have been so embarrassed with the shallow and stupid bill of goods that they were trying to foist off on viewers that they would have folded long before this disaster went before the cameras.
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