Director – Robert Luketic
Writer – Peter Steinfield, Allan Loeb
Starring – Jim Sturgess, Kevin Spacey, Kate Bosworth, Aaron Yoo, Laurence Fishbourne
The name of 21’s game is not the presumed blackjack but the game of flashiness and little else. Sure the film’s nice to look at, as stylish to watch as Vegas itself, but beneath that there’s not much else other than less-than-believable characters and a story that wears thin.
21 tells the story of Ben Campbell, a smarter-than-smart MIT student who gets offered an opportunity he can’t refuse. That is to join a team of other students and a witty professor to count cards in Las Vegas to pay for his entrance into Harvard Med School.
21 is like one of those smartly packaged birthday presents you got when you were younger, one that looks fantastic on the outside but once opened up the content doesn’t live up to what you’d expected. The visuals of 21 are probably the reason to see it. Slick in that Ocean’s kind of way, it makes for a nice visual experience when compared to other less in-your-face films. Perhaps, for some, the visuals are enough to carry the film, along with the good looking actors and easy-to-digest script. For me, although I didn’t not like 21, I wanted a lot more from it and I’m sorry to say didn’t get it.
The film’s biggest problem is the amount of effort it takes for the viewer to actually believe what happens throughout. It starts out adequately but soon spirals into a pit of unbelievability in most, if not all, areas. We are just supposed to accept that this young man is as smart as he is, that he’s so much better than everyone else around him and that the counting cards situation would even arise let alone play out in any way. And even such a small thing as one Kate Bosworth even being part of a math club is really hard to take on-board without calling the film’s believability into question. Even in its most minute of details little about 21 rings true and therefore it lost me way before the end credits appeared.
There’s nothing overly wrong with the performances by everyone involved, it’s just that as an ensemble they didn’t really click. I don’t necessarily have a problem with the fact that the faces were all picked, to some degree, because of their magazine cover looks but what I did have a problem with was that they just didn’t work together. Sturgess holds his own as the extremely intelligent and ambitious Ben and a few of the supporting student characters do their job as they’re supposed to. It’s the addition of Laurence Fishburne and especially Kevin Spacey that stick out the most. Although it’s a role Spacey could play in his sleep there was just something inexplicable about the way he carried himself that just made him stick out like a black tooth in a set of otherwise white teeth. Since he also acts as producer on the film it’s obviously clear he believed in it but from where I’m sitting, for the man who was involved with such all-time greats as American Beauty and Se7en, I can’t imagine why. Like I said a few of the key players work fine but as a whole the cast just didn’t feel right to me.
I am possibly being a bit too harsh on 21. It’s not a bad film and there is fun to be had at various points throughout. The most enjoyable aspect being the various different techniques the director uses to capture the feeling of the game at hand. One of those techniques is CGI of blackjack being played with extreme close-ups of chips being counted and cards turning over. It does this, and many other quite clever camera tricks, in such a way that’s simple enough to grasp a hold of but still complicated enough not to feel force fed to the viewer. It does wear thin after a while, when you realize that it’s the most fun you’re going to have, but for what they are the various techniques make for a fun time.
As ludicrous as the story is to begin with you simply have to just suspend you’re disbelief if you want any chance of half enjoying it. It’s the twists in the storyline, which happen towards the end, which pushed me over the edge into complete disbelief. Reminiscent of the mentioned Ocean’s series, and in particular the first instalment, the twist attempts to make you smirk at it’s cleverness but at the same time feel a sense of, “Why didn’t figure that out?” Where Ocean’s Eleven succeeded in that area tremendously, 21 comes off as a desperate attempt to seem as clever as possible when in fact it’s idiotic and generally unimpressive.
As a whole the film plays it disappointingly safe. I could have seen it being an edgy, twist-ridden gem that would leave you feeling satisfied. 21 is far from that; flashy and in-your-face with little underneath to sustain interest for its overly long runtime. It’s not going to be in either of the worst or best of the year list but if anyone makes up such a thing; the mediocre list.