Where's TC Candler When I need him?
During my time writing with TC Candler and Jacob Hall on the website IndependentCritics.com, certain things were a given.
Jacob? We could always depend upon him to cover the horror films.
Me? I was long recognized as the go to critic for Razzie-destined films, ultra-indies and those emotionally manipulative films that critics hate to admit they enjoy.
TC Candler? We could always count on TC to cover the REALLY artsy films and, being the professional poker player that he is, he would always cover the poker and Vegas-themed films.
It's just the way it was. No exceptions.
So, here we are looking at "21," director Robert Luketic's ("Legally Blonde") look at the real-life story of a group of MIT students who learned to count cards and took Vegas by storm and for millions of dollars.
Now, admittedly, we're talking about blackjack here rather than poker. Yet, I can't help but think TC's going to watch this film and catch oodles of things that will float right by me.
I repeat. Where's TC when I need him?
Fortunately, Luketic himself has acknowledged being less concerned with the mechanics of blackjack than with the development of the characters in "21." While TC could undoubtedly watch virtually any poker or card-themed film and rip it apart for how it portrays the game itself, my own poker playing experiences are largely limited to those wasted days in college playing strip poker with my theatre buddies at Indiana University. I spent more time counting articles of clothing than counting cards, so the notion that I might watch "21" and catch any technical mistakes is ludicrous at best.
Like the average American, I know very little about the mechanics of poker or blackjack or Go Fish, for that matter. I do, however, know quite a bit about cinema and even more about what kinds of films I do and don't enjoy.
"21" is stuck somewhere in the middle.
"21" is practically the definition of a competently made film, yet for a story with so much natural drama and slick intrigue it's oddly uninvolving and so broadly painted with the Hollywood paint brush that this true story never quite rings as true.
The core of the story centers on Ben (Jim Sturgess, "Across the Universe"), a geeky science nerd trying to put together the cash to attend Harvard. When his favorite math professor (Kevin Spacey) encourages his involvement with Team Vegas, a crack team of math-geek cardsharks who learn the legal yet highly frowned upon art of card counting and proceed sweep through Vegas. Ben, being essentially a good guy just trying to get to Harvard Medical School, is resistant until he falls under the seductive charms of the beautiful Jill Taylor (Kate Bosworth).
One of the key problems with "21" is that, despite Luketic's assertion that he's focusing more on character development than the mechanics of blackjack, the majority of the characters in "21" are paper thin caricatures with whom its impossible to connect well enough to root either for or against their exploits. Their exploits are only fundamentally explored, never fully explained and it feels as if screenwriters Peter Steinfeld and Allan Loeb felt compelled to simplify the story to the point it seems unfathomable that they could have ever gotten away with these actions...and they did!
While "21" never really rises above mediocrity, it is blessed with a trio of decent performances led by nicely balanced turn by Sturgess as a young man who gets swept up in the fast-paced Vegas lifestyle. Likewise, while the professor is a role Kevin Spacey could play in his sleep, he nonetheless bursts out of the gate and captivates even when the film's pacing itself lags considerably. Spacey's production company, TriggerStreet Productions, co-produces the film and his interest in this story shines through his performance.
As an old-school security chief who begins to catch on to the scheme, Laurence Fishburne does the most he can with a fairly one-note role and Liza Lapira does a nice job in a supporting performance.
Kate Bosworth, who's made three films with Spacey now, seems to fare the worst here owing both to her noted lack of chemistry with Sturgess and a performance that always feels a step behind everyone else in the film.
While Luketic tries to give "21" a slick and stylized look, he too often employs the same gimmicky effects tricks he tried to incorporate into another of his films, "Win a Date with Tad Hamilton." For a film that runs almost exactly two hours, "21" feels at least 15-20 minutes too long and, sadly, much of the excess is taken up by stupid movie tricks rather than important plot exposition or character development.
As is often true for these "based on a true story" films, very little in "21" is actually true. While the film is based on Ben Mezrich's book "Bringing Down the House" (No, silly. NOT the Steve Martin film!), "21" takes the "Glory Road" approach to recounting the story by changing virtually everything except the basic storyline.
While I would be hard pressed to call "21" a bad film, neither is it anywhere near as good as it thinks it is. While it's refreshing to see Luketic branch out of his lightweight romantic comedies, it's almost undeniable that "21" will be considered a lightweight action/adventure.
With Luketic choosing style over substance and fantasy over reality, the ultimate irony of this film filled with card-counting and mathematics is that somehow "21" just doesn't add up.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic