Movie News & Reviews

Bright lights, big waste

It's glitzy. It's suspenseful. It's a wallow in get-rich-quick ambition.

Of course, it's also largely uninhabited. But at least the empty vessels are attractive.

"21" is the highly fictionalized movie version of "Bringing Down the House," the factual best-seller about six MIT students who developed a system to beat Las Vegas' blackjack tables.

We witness the story through the eyes of Ben (Jim Sturgess of "Across the Universe"), an MIT math whiz who has been accepted to Harvard Medical School. Unfortunately there's no way Ben's job at a haberdashery will provide the $300,000 he needs for tuition.

Still, Ben refuses to get involved when math professor Mickey Rosa (Kevin Spacey) invites him to join a team of brainiacs who have perfected a card-counting system. They need somebody with Ben's superhuman ability to mentally crunch numbers while outwardly appearing to be just another newly rich high roller.

Isn't that cheating? Ben protests.

(In fact, casinos have long regarded card-counting as cheating -- although keeping track of which cards have been dealt and which remain in the deck would seem to be a smart strategy for winning any card game.)

Eventually Ben comes around after luscious team member Jill (Kate Bosworth) pays him a visit. Ben portrays a money-flashing power player. The other students, posing as small-time gamblers, signal to him which tables are hot, when the house is getting suspicious and other information that will put a half-dozen high IQs at his disposal.

Half of their winnings go back to Professor Rosa, who was long ago banned from the tables. The kids divvy up the rest and, despite his vow to quit when he gets $300,000, Ben is sucked into the glamour and excitement of beating Vegas.

He gets so wrapped up in the con and in his new gang that he ignores the nerds (Josh Gad, Sam Golzari) who have been his closest friends all through college.

Eventually, though, he'll get too cocky for his own good. Then he'll make the acquaintance of Cole Williams (Laurence Fishburne), a casino "loss prevention" specialist whose old-school style often involves brass knuckles.

Scripted by Peter Steinfeld and Alan Loeb and directed by Rob Luketic, "21" is fun as far as it goes. But it doesn't go far.

Though inspired by a real story, it's crammed with Hollywood elements -- like Spacey's college prof, a preposterously tough-talking sleazeball who is as much gangster as educator.

Director Luketic, whose best films ("Legally Blonde," "Win a Date With Tad Hamilton") have found emotional truth inside nearly cartoonish characters, seems uneasy with the essentially serious world he is presenting here. He gets the details of the Vegas experience right, but it's hard to care what happens to any of the characters.

With the exception of Fishburne's casino enforcer -- weary of fighting new face-recognition technology that will soon make his hands-on style obsolete -- the film is uninhabited.

Leading man Sturgess seems bland and unremarkable, for all of Ben's alleged genius. His young colleagues make practically no impression, each having been reduced to one broad character trait.

Still, "21" is a bright and shiny bauble. Enjoy looking, but don't expect it to tell you much.