Poker nights with the boys are lame now. Vegas is where it’s at, baby!
Ben Campbell (Jim Sturgess) seems like your typical young adult: Senior at MIT, has a respectable source of income, is a bit of a geek, nice to his mommy, cares for his friends, does well in class, and is trying his hardest to get his ass into Harvard’s Med School. Okay, maybe he’s not the “typical young adult” we all associate ourselves with, but he is poor and he does have a dream so at least he has that going for him. Problem is, the dream he has is practically unattainable due to a lack of funds and a very small shot at getting the perfect scholarship that would make all of his problems go away. However, when Campbell catches the eyes of his professor (Kevin Spacey), he soon finds himself involved with his school’s late-night, underground world of card-counting and unofficial “gambling”, where all of a sudden, all of the money in the world that Ben could possibly want is right here in his hands. How’s he going to handle it all though?
Many out there would probably dismiss this as nothing more than another one of “Hollywood’s, glamorized fantasies” where unrealistic, young, aspiring people have a chance to live their dreams, get rich, party it up, have a good time, and live like they’re going to die tomorrow, And to be honest with you, you wouldn’t be that far off here, had the actual story behind this movie not just been true, but actually written into a book that this movie adapted itself from.
That’s right, believe it or not: A story about a bunch of MIT students who, in the mid-90’s went out to the Vegas casinos, using their skills of counting cards to benefit from the rewards of steep cash, who were lead by a man named Jeff Ma. Despite being, as they say, “based on a true story”, the flick has every working of what could be counted as a total and complete ball of unrealistic glitz and glamour, that gives any kid hope that they too can not only just run tables by learning code names behind certain cards, but also “act out” in a way that changes their image up and has people fooled because they decided to throw a mustache on their face, or a wig on their head. Obviously, it’s all very stupid and hard to fully believe in, but I don’t think that’s really the point behind this flick, especially coming from an inartistic director like Robert Luketic. It’s meant to be a fun, thrilling, and shiny-looking movie that’s more of a love letter to Sin City, than actually being about a heartfelt tale of a kid who chased his dreams, had them in the palm of his hands, and came very, very close to losing them due to sure stupidity, but that’s fine.
Well, fine as long as you can keep me interested; something Luketic forgot to do and in a lazy way as well.
It isn’t even that the movie lost me because everything happened the way I expected it to; in fact, I knew that was going to happen, so I didn’t get myself all wrapped up in the rampant clichés and decided to enjoy what was on screen anyway. However, Luketic tested my patience a bit too much here because he never seems invested in the material, nor does he ever really add an stamp-mark on it, as if you could see him, and only him directing it. This movie could have literally been directed by anybody: You, me, the homeless guy right by the 7-11, anybody. It feels like the type of movie that Luketic made just so he could score some extra cash on the side and with the type of track-record he has; I wouldn’t throw that possibility out at all.
Even as boring as his style (or lack thereof) may be, the writing for his flick is even worse. One of the first rules that these younglings bring up right away before they get out to the town and started making some moolah, is that they play it low-key, so nobody knows just what the hell they are up to, or who they are. For the first couple of trips, they’re calm, collective, and cool, while still making plenty of money on the side. However, once a little bit more cash-flow starts coming their way, they’re acting like total and complete a-holes, as if they were the Rolling Stones during their hey-day. They got the strippers; the drinks; the money; the drugs (didn’t see any, but it’s assumed); and the vanity behind it all. All that’s left was a rockin’ soundtrack of 80’s glam rock collection of Mötley Crüe and Poison. Maybe it was to show that they were young, naive, and a way too in over their heads, but even the professor that’s aiding them on this trip is allowing it, even joining in on the fun as well. Just stupid, stupid, stupid stuff, man.
Anyway, they totally betray their finest rule of their scheming and not only did it take me out of the movie, but it didn’t allow me to see anybody or anything as believable in any sense. Jim Sturgess shares not a single resemblance to the real-life Jeff Ma at all, but he gets by on being a welcome-presence that’s nice and rather sweet, even if if his accent does go in and out almost as much as customers in a whore plantation. Once his story goes on and gets more convoluted, you begin to care less about him, and more about the people around him, who actually feel some sort of emotions for the dude, despite him being a bit of a prick. I guess you could throw Kate Bosworth’s character in that group, even if she too feels like she’s a bit dull and bored with the material. However, Luketic probably didn’t worry himself too much with them in the first place, so why should they even bother, right?
The only two in this cast that are worth watching and giving a shit about are the screen-vets that wipe their asses with this material: Laurence Fishburne and Kevin Spacey. Both take a bit of a back-burner to these younger stars, but eagerly wait in the background, just to have their moment to shine and show the rest of the movie world that they still “got it”. Fishburne is fun to watch as the strong, powerful black man that takes controls of his casinos and will not, not for a single bit, fall victim to another fraud that left him kicking cans in the street last time something like that happened; and Spacey is, well, Spacey. He’s sarcastic; he’s an ass; he’s funny; he’s vindictive; he’s manipulative; and he’s a blast to watch. What else is there left to say? Without these two, the movie definitely would have suffered a whole lot more, but just them showing up and letting us know that they actually care about this material as much as they didn’t need to; really made me want to give it a chance. Even if that chance came crashing down and burning once I realized that it’s nothing new I haven’t seen done a hundred times before, and mostly better as well. That’s Hollywood for ya, though. Nothing new, nothing funny. Just shiny, pretty surfaces to gaze at.
Consensus: Even if 21 is based on a true story, you wouldn’t fully believe in it due to it’s empty feeling and boring characters, despite it being okay to watch, if only you have nothing else to do with your life than spend 2-hours in front of a screen that isn’t your phone or the computer.
5 / 10 = Rental!!