Brainy, smug, and drearily middle-class, Ben (Jim Sturgess) is worried that he won’t have the $300,000 tuition for Harvard Medical. Never mind that he’s a pre-med mathlete whiz at M.I.T. He’s told by a guy in a suit that he probably won’t get the Robinson Scholarship he believes is his only way through and so, he also believes he has good reason to take up card counting.
It’s not that such activity is illegal, as you’re reminded repeatedly in the dreary caper flick 21. It’s just that it’s dishonest, as well as exciting and seductive, especially as presented by Jill (Kate Bosworth), Ben’s sleek blond classmate and shiny prize on the card-counting team. When at first Ben demurs from joining the team, Jill shows up at the square men’s clothing store where he works and puts her perfect lips close to his while trying out a tie around his neck. Ben swoons, just a bit, and soon enough forgets that he has two best friends already, nerdly Miles (Josh Gad) and Cam (Sam Golzari), with whom he’s working on a big-deal science project. Though Miles understands, encourages, and lives a little vicariously through Ben’s interest in Jill (he’s a nerd, after all, and so too easily impressed by a shallow beauty who also happens to be a “rocket scientist”), loyalty is one of several questions confronting Ben. Though none of these questions feels especially urgent, they do provide a thematic backdrop for his bland coming of age storyline.
Per formula, Ben is also provided with a father figure, the Fagin-like Micky (Kevin Spacey, valiantly supporting his Old Vic), a professor who recruits his smart students to play cards for money. “You not only have a gifted mind,” he cajoles Ben, “but you’re also composed, you think logically.” Though Ben frowns as if concerned about the immorality of cheating, he’s soon enough convinced. His decision is hastened when Jill insists, “You should feel the thrill of making more money than you could possibly imagine.” Yes, it would be nice to ease the burden on his hardworking single mom (who appears a couple of times, looking weary and proud of her son as he lies (badly) about how he’s suddenly got several thousand dollars. (Mom, being saintly and trusting, not to mention dressed in her work uniform, doesn’t question her baby boy.)
Based loosely on Ben Mezrich’s Bringing Down the House: The Inside Story of Six M.I.T. Students Who Took Vegas for Millions, the movie mostly celebrates the team’s sense of entitlement and superiority is plainly instilled by Micky, who nurtures Ben’s belief that he’s brighter than everyone else (he’s not that bright though, as he easily falls for Micky’s manipulations). Jill brings another argument, reductive and attractive: “The best thing about Vegas,” she purrs, “is that you can be anyone you want.”
In Vegas, Ben’s newbie exhilaration is reflected in a predictable series of game montages, swooping shots of Vegas neon, and flash-pans over crowded casino floors. But the movie doesn’t do much with the “you can be anyone you want” idea, in part because the team members are insipidly stereotyped — Ben and Jill are joined by goofy Choi (Aaron Yoo), slinky Kianna (Liza Lapira), and whiny Fisher (Jacob Pitts) — and in part because any self-invention is limited to carrying the occasional alternate driver’s license and wearing the occasional wig. Micky warns his team that Vegas is trying out new face recognition software, but their disguises are mostly silly, offering no chance of eluding any such software (within weeks, Ben’s self-confidence is marked by valets and casino managers, who greet him buoyantly: “Hey, Mr. C!”).
But even as the software apparently misses their fake mustaches and cowboy hats, the team is soon scrutinized by a pair of old-schooly Vegas “security” guards, themselves under threat of losing their jobs to the newfangled software. Cole Williams (Laurence Fishburne) is especially keen to spot and punish the offenders, and come to find out he has a “history” with Micky, which passes for explanation regarding his dogged pursuit of Ben and company. Cole and his buddy Terry (Jack McGee) serve mostly as cartoonish threats, peering at surveillance monitor images while gritting their teeth and muttering how much they want to get these damn cheaters. When they do make their moves onto the floor, the guards become lumbering thugs, dragging their targets downstairs to a scary basement, tying them to chairs, and beating them bloody. Even if card counting is legal, this gangster-style brutality plainly cannot be, yet it provides long minutes of hackneyed menace, a B-movie plot point that only underlines 21‘s unoriginality.
As Ben must learn a lesson, the movie must demonize Micky, whose slick meanness becomes increasingly visible. Enticing Ben to take on a greater role in the scam and replace the hard-partying Fisher, he asserts, “I don’t trust the girls, and Choi’s… Choi,” a categorization Ben doesn’t doubt. He is, after all, the most sublimely privileged boy, unaware of his race-and-gender-inflected opportunities but quick to kvetch about the unfairness of the Ivy League’s money systems. Though he comes to see Micky as the enemy — and Micky makes him pay mightily for such judgment — they are, after all, alike in ambitions and ethics.