Sony’s generic 21 lacks purpose, subtlety and excitement—all essential elements for a successful gambling thriller. Without a thematic end game, team spirit and a believable bluff, director Robert Luketic (Legally Blonde) is left to showcase what distinguishes his work: audio-visual energy.
Reuniting with Kate Bosworth (Win a Date with Tad Hamilton!), who is reuniting with her Beyond the Sea and Superman Returns co-star, Kevin Spacey, Luketic retains his trademark wholesomeness enough to let the viewer care about the main character, Ben (Jim Sturgess), a smart, financially struggling college student. He’s a math whiz at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) applying for a scholarship to attend Harvard Medical School.
When Ben shows a grasp for a college professor’s (Spacey) lesson—always account for variable change—during a course in non-linear math, he is brought into a secret clique of fellow geeks who game the system. That is, this group of students, instigated by Spacey’s flip teacher, counts cards in blackjack for big bucks on weekends in Las Vegas. At first, Ben, apparently disturbed by the ethics of such a practice, walks away.
Then, he changes his mind. Then, he changes it back. Or does he? A primary problem here is that the script fails to address core issues, such as why characters make certain choices and, significantly, whether counting cards is wrong or not. If it is legal and justifiable, as characters assert, why not openly count cards?
The kids—two white dudes, two Asians and Bosworth, who was too young for Lois Lane and is too worldly for a college student—enter and exit casinos at will, with Spacey’s multiple hotel suite bookings apparently raising no suspicion, signaling one another about “hot” tables and pocketing bundles of dollars. Eventually, a security chief (Laurence Fishburne) catches on to the scheme and gets away with pulling card-counting guests into the basement and busting their heads wide open.
Moral transgression, if there is one, is neither assigned nor revealed and a morality play without a moral compass is a lost cause. This explains why the picture is boring, too, as rudderless Ben betrays his MIT friends by defaulting on an important computer science project and, in the worst breach of his values, blatantly lies to his loving mother. None of this is particularly plausible. Even the government’s airport TSA tyrants might notice an eccentric professor taking the same five students to Vegas every weekend. MIT students and faculty certainly would.
Twists and turns, apologies, shifting alliances—none of these make 21 more involving and a classic tune updated by the Rolling Stones doesn’t help. Ben (Sturgess, as flat as the movie) makes it with the Bosworth character, buddies up and takes on both Spacey’s and Fishburne’s heavies and, after he’d lied to his mom, I still couldn’t have cared less, much less wanted to bet on his redemption.
Luketic, who shines with light, optimistic comedy, ought to mine that which he finds realistic and romantic—maybe conservative Sony wouldn’t let him—because it feels like he’s going through the motions here. Part of the reason 21’s Vegas comes across as vacant is that plot and characters are blank slates, too, which totals more like eleven than twenty-one.