Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Down for the Count

Dave is forever giving me grief about reviewing some of the less popular films out there. Hey, it ain't my fault no one but me went to see Be Kind Rewind. So here's a review of this week's box office champ. Nothing could be more popular than ...

21 (d. Robert Luketic)

At the heart of the film 21 is an elaborate scheme to outwit casino blackjack tables called "card counting." My comprehension of this plan is limited by the fact that I'm a math moron, but in my imperfect understanding it goes a little something like this: as cards are played at the blackjack table, one counts them by assigning values to them; high value cards like faces, tens and aces are -1, while lower value cards are +1. The more low value cards that are played, the "hotter" the table because those are out of the way and there are more high value cards to come.

Or something. I'm sure I'm oversimplifying. Just for the heck of it, let's apply the card counting formula to the movie itself and see what kind of star rating it ends up with. Good things about the movie will be worth +1 (or 1/2 a star), and bad things will be worth -1. We'll start at 2 1/2 stars (an average review). Got it? Me neither. Let's go.

Ben Campbell is a student at MIT. He breezes through classes but struggles to make ends meet. With his dreams of going to Harvard Med on the verge of collapse because of his financial situation, he is approached by one of his professors, Mickey Rosa (Kevin Spacey), who teaches high level math and runs a card counting scam with his brightest students on the side. Mickey promises Ben all the money he could possibly need for tuition and more, but Ben initially rejects his offer. A more effective enticement is provided by Jill (Kate Bosworth), one of Mickey's card counters and (Ben informs us) the prettiest girl in the school.

Why are the prettiest girls always so intimidatingly smart? We're told this is all based on a true story, but the set up plays as ridiculous fiction. -1.

Jim Sturgess -- remarkable last year as Jude in the great Across the Universe -- plays Ben with a wide-eyed gape that makes you question his supposed intelligence at every turn. -1.

Meanwhile, his mentor and rival, Mickey is played by the always oily Kevin Spacey. The real shock here would be if Spacey ISN'T up to some special kind of no good. But despite a little bit of autopilot, Spacey effectively sells Rosa's smarts and malice. +1.

Rounding out the main cast, Kate Bosworth doesn't get a lot to work with as Jill. We never learn why she's thrown in with Spacey and, despite her undeniable attractiveness, her inevitable romance with Ben radiates no heat whatsoever. -1.

The settings in drab, stately MIT, and then later in neon and opulent Las Vegas effectively show the contrast and temptations that Ben is presented with. The money piles up and he eventually exceeds the amount he needed for med school. The sequences when he and his teammates are executing their card counting scheme are the movie's most engaging. +1.

Eventually, Ben and company run afoul of Lawrence Fishburne as an old-school casino security enforcer named Cole Williams. Fishburne, beefy and violent, brings much-needed gravity and threat to the film (+1), though even he commits a few acting faux pas, allowing his accent to slip from Vegas tough guy to "Guys and Dolls" chorus member once or twice (-1). We discover that he and Spacey have a history, and again, if this weren't a true story, it would be a total eye-roller. -1.

During the course of 21, Fishburne delivers a couple of beatings and each time, his victims bleed blood that looks like 40 weight motor oil. +0, I guess.

In his direction, Luketic tries very hard to make the act of sitting at a table flipping cards over and stacking chips look exciting. And through shear force of effort, he almost pulls it off. Chips rise up in neat little stacks in front of players, cards light up and call attention to themselves as Ben examines them, time at the tables passes in rapid montage and anime-style blurs. It's a whole lot of nothing, but there's some inventive eye candy there. A reluctant +1.

In the end, 21 just doesn't add up to much. The money comes and goes. Ben acts like a jerk then says he's sorry. Jill's affections ebb and flow almost as arbitrarily as the cash. And the story hinges on whether or not a few quasi-interesting kids can make a semi-legal buck or not. The stakes may be high at the tables, but they're not especially high for the audience.

So, if my math is right (and check me, because it probably isn't), that means 21 gets a star rating of ...

2 stars. Which means this table is not hot.

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