There’s nothing more frustrating in a movie than a smart character making a string of stupid decisions. Ultimately, it’s what hamstrings Ben Campbell in 21, a movie about math geniuses devising a method of counting cards to rip off Las Vegas to the tune of a few million dollars.
Campbell (Jim Sturgess, who crafted a breakout performance last year in Across the Universe) is a brilliant MIT student from a middle class background. His dream has always been to attend med school at Harvard, but there’s no way he can afford it, and his window of opportunity is closing.
With no other way of making $300,000 in less than a year, Ben is coerced into joining a collection of collegiate card counters by a charming physics professor (Kevin Spacey). And yes, we were also wondering if there really is such a thing as a charming physics professor. Ben quickly learns how easy it is for someone with a brain for numbers to count cards, and before long, he’s jetting from Boston to Las Vegas on the weekends, changing his identity to avoid suspicion and racking up huge wins and stacks of chips playing blackjack.
Then a curious thing happens to Ben. The importance of raising the money for med school becomes the importance of winning the money to be a high roller. There’s a girl (Kate Bosworth), because there’s always a girl, and suddenly Ben is living the charade instead of his own life. But there’s always the very real threat that you can’t beat Vegas forever, no matter how smart you are.
Though it’s far from being a great film, 21 is pretty good in spots. Sturgess is definitely a star on the rise, but there might actually be more to like out of Bosworth’s performance, since most often, characters like hers are little more than throwaways. She’s alluring, tough, and a little cool. It’s easier to buy Sturgess as a high roller than a math whiz, but it’s nearly impossible to buy his character as both.
Director Robert Luketic tries to heighten the obvious differences between Boston and Las Vegas with a terrific soundtrack and the blinding lights of Sin City. But after a while, 21 bogs down; it gets repetitive going back to the tables over and over again, and the film lags desperately when the action shifts to MIT. Even still, it’s a safer pick than betting against the house.
Starring Jim Sturgess, Kate Bosworth and Kevin Spacey
Directed by Robert Luketic