Kevin Spacey’s Blackjack Flick A Hit or A Bust?
by Jager Stewart


Almost all idealistic films require their audiences to suspend a certain amount of disbelief. This is not a bad thing. The reason that people see idealistic films is because they want to experience whatever fantasy the film is presenting vicariously, and so it can’t be held against the filmmakers if their movie is a bit over-the-top.

However, when an audience decides to overlook a film’s exaggerations, the expectation is that they will be rewarded. The audience trusts that the ultimate goal of the filmmaker is to provide a good movie. If suspending disbelief helps add to the cohesion of the movie, then the audience is happy to trust the filmmaker. Unfortunately, inconsistent films like the card counting drama 21 break the agreement.

Loosely adapted from the real-life events in Ben Mezrich’s book, Bringing Down the House, 21 is a film with a very alluring premise; protagonist Ben Campbell (Jim Sturgess) is an MIT student who becomes involved with a stealthy con group of other MIT students–their scam: counting blackjack at Las Vegas casinos and taking the casinos for millions of dollars.

Regrettably, the makers of 21 are not sure what they want the film to be about. The film opens with Ben’s dilemma; after devoting all his time to straight A’s, extracurricular science projects, and acing standardized exams, Ben accomplished his life-long dream of being admitted into Harvard Medical School. But, Ben is unable to afford medical school on his eight-dollar-an-hour job and, with a twist of irony, is unqualified for the scholarship he needs. An admissions official tells Ben that he’ll only get the scholarship if he can write an essay that “dazzles,” but Ben appears to lack so much life experience due to his academic commitments that he unfortunately turns out to be the least dazzling character in the film.

Nevertheless, Ben is still a genius. By the time that his cocksure and malevolent professor (Kevin Spacey) recognizes this and introduces Ben to his card counting circle, it’s impossible not to root for Ben; the audience wants him to achieve his Harvard Med dream. The audience wants him to become a doctor, wants him to make money, and wants to like the film.

Too bad for 21, the film faces problems as soon as Ben gets introduced to the group. Without giving too much away, the film takes a lackluster approach to card counting that makes the scheme look incredibly simplistic. It’s as if anyone could walk into a Las Vegas casino and win thousands of dollars simply by adding and subtracting in slow succession. In light of this, that entire hour that was spent developing Ben’s character seems wasted. We suspended our disbelief about Ben’s genius because we expected the card game to be incredibly intricate—too complicated for anyone but a genius. Yet, in 21, it is as if a child could make a killing counting blackjack.

Additionally, Jill Taylor (Kate Bosworth) appears as the crush from MIT who is also secretly flying to Vegas on weekends and scamming casinos with her professor. As Ben’s relationship with her becomes more and more intimate, it is unclear as to what is motivating him. Is he in Las Vegas to pay for college or is he in Las Vegas to live the Vegas lifestyle? If his character was consistent, Ben’s scam would be motivated by his medical school tuition. Instead, the film digresses into a fantasy about young riches. At this point, nothing but fantasy and an uninspired conflict with a beefy Laurence Fishburne drive the plot. By the end, Ben is whiny and unlikable, maybe the hardest character to cheer for. He’s not the boy from the start of the film, and there isn’t much explanation as to why.

In the desolate couple of months that follow the Oscars, 21 might be your best bet. There are moments to enjoy—Kevin Spacey is especially amusing—and there’s no question that Las Vegas after dark is sexy on the big screen. If you lust for money, then 21 has enough action to drive your night, but if you’re looking for a smart drama, look elsewhere; going all in on this one might just leave you disappointed.