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Saturday, March 29, 2008

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Posted By on Sat, Mar 29, 2008 at 9:58 AM

MOVIEGOER REVIEW:  "21"

It wasn't long ago that I watched the young British actor Jim Sturgess grace the screen in the tantalizing musical "Across the Universe."  In that film, Sturgess played an immigrant naive to the impending challenges facing America, and more particularly college-age kids, during the Vietnam War.  A similar innocence masks his character in the semi-interesting and all-too-obvious gambling romp "21." 

The film is based on the book "Bringing Down the House" by Ben Mezrich about six M.I.T. students who devised a system to take Las Vegas casinos for millions.  The plot is formulaic: Ben Campbell (Jim Sturgess), an unassuming boy genius, gives an answer in class that catches the eye of his professor Micky Rosa (Kevin Spacey, effortlessly), who happens to be running an elite card couting unit out of a basement classroom.  Ben is soon recruited, and he joins in because he need money to go to medical school.

The system Rosa contrives, based on "spotters" counting the deck at blackjack tables and signaling to the "big better" when the table is hot, works.  And everyone wins.  But as you can imagine, Ben doesn't get out once he's won the money he needs.  He falls in love with the lavish Vegas lifestyle, including sexy time with with M.I.T. hottie Jill Taylor (Kate Bosworth, underutilized).  That makes him cocky, and he quits playing the system and starts gambling.  He loses, big, and finds himself in more trouble than he imagined.

Rosa's elaborate scheme is enough to keep your attention over the 123-minute running time.  And the lifestyle these card hustlers (counting cards isn't illegal, but casinos will ban you if you're caught) is an attractive fantasy.  I'm not sure I fully comprehend their methods, but watching their minds process numbers is intriguiging, assuming that's how this game can be beat.  However, the formulaic nature of Peter Steinfeld and Allen Loeb's script lends to predicable outcomes, and that ultimately renders the film nothing more than a generic studio film for which all of the actors (Ms. Bosworth, especially) were well compensated.

They may have hit blackjack!, but you won't.

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