Movie Review: '21'

A few things you will not learn while watching "21": You will not learn how to play blackjack, despite the fact that the movie is, um, titled "21" and is about a group of M.I.T. students who earn hundreds of thousands of dollars playing said card game.

You will not learn how to count cards, despite the fact that this is the method the students use to win all that money.

You will not learn how long their elaborate scheme carries on, or whether there are any legal repercussions to their actions, despite the fact that the film is based on a nonfiction book titled "Bringing Down the House: The Inside Story of Six M.I.T. Students Who Took Vegas for Millions" by Ben Mezrich.

What you will learn - though this much you probably already knew - is that Hollywood has an uncanny knack for taking potentially provocative material and dumbing it down to the point of complete irrelevancy.

Presumably set in the present day ("21" doesn't just skimp on the details, it doesn't believe in details, period), the film introduces us to Ben Campbell (Jim Sturgess, from "Across the Universe"), an extremely gifted student who instantly impresses his professor Micky Rosa ( Kevin Spacey). It turns out that Micky is also the leader of a gambling ring at the university: He oversees a group of students who travel to Las Vegas each weekend and manage to elude the eagle eyes of the casino operators - who are forever on the lookout for card counters - and return back to Massachusetts tens of thousands of dollars richer.

Had director Robert Luketic ("Legally Blonde") and screenwriters Peter Steinfeld and Allan Loeb respected the audience's intelligence, they might have used this story as the springboard for a rich and gripping procedural - a movie that allowed us to understand the ins and outs of a complex and constantly changing betting system. Instead, "21" serves up a harebrained back-story (Ben needs to earn money so that he can pay for Harvard Medical School - which apparently no longer offers student loans), a hackneyed central conflict (Ben eventually decides he's too good at card counting to need Micky's help anymore), and an utterly ludicrous subplot ( Laurence Fishburne plays the Las Vegas security expert who's trying to catch the students, to prove the inadequacy of the computerized security systems being installed throughout of the city). Little of this, of course, appears in Mezrich's book, which seems to have been filtered through a computer program designed to create completely generic Hollywood potboilers.

Along the way, an attractive young cast - which includes Kate Bosworth ("Superman Returns"), Aaron Yoo ("Disturbia") and Jacob Pitts ("Quarterlife") as Ben's partners-in-card-counting - is wasted, as one plot point after another goes unaddressed. (Why do the students always stay together in a pricey hotel suite, when they're not supposed to be seen together? How is it that they manage to leave the casinos with such vast sums without ever having to report their income to the I.R.S.?)

Scene to scene, the movie holds together - if you stumble upon it on HBO in two years, you might even sit through it until the end. But you're never able to shake the feeling that it's both pointless and worthless. In the parlance of the gambling tables, it's a bust.

Get showtimes and details for "21."

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