"21" makes bad bet with morality spin

Film based on true account of MIT students beating Las Vegas casinos loses when it gambles on too many Hollywood clichés.

"21" retells the story of MIT students taking Vegas for lots of cash told in Ben Mezrich's "Bringing Down the House" with a heavy hand toward moral lessons to be learned.

What could be more entertaining and interesting to watch than a handful of MIT students taking big-time Las Vegas casinos for tons of cash?

Apparently, the filmmakers behind Sony Pictures' "21" thought viewers would prefer a contrived morality tale of a young man torn between the glamorous gaming world of Vegas and the serious, studious existence he leads at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Director Robert Luketic, who previously hit it big with the Reese Witherspoon vehicle "Legally Blonde" and then not so much with Jennifer Lopez's "Monster-in-Law," took many risks that didn't pay off in his retelling of Ben Mezrich's "Bringing Down the House: The Inside Story of Six M.I.T. Students Who Took Vegas for Millions."

(Listen to Network Downtime for an audio podcast review of "21".)

For one, he abandoned many details of the book's account, which could have been a smart bet considering movie time constraints, but he and writers Peter Steinfeld ("Be Cool" and "Analyze That") and Allan Loeb ("Things We Lost in the Fire") discounted the true draw of the story: Six kids beat the casino-machine with little more than smarts and strategy. Remaking any story told in a best-selling novel is a daunting task to say the least, but "21" makes it difficult for viewers unfamiliar with the true account to grasp even the spirit of the original tale. "21" puts its lead in a moral dilemma that costs him much more than the money he uses to gamble. But in reality, those six students from MIT -- while not allowed to step foot in most casinos to this day -- took the experience and applied it to some very lucrative careers.

The film opens with Ben Campbell, played by British import James Sturgess recently seen in "Across the Universe" and "The Other Boleyn Girl," as a hard-working, affable and awkward young man with a gift for numbers. He has succeeded in acing his courses at MIT and even secured a spot in Harvard Medical School. But with a deceased dad and single working mom, the $300,000 tuition presents quite an obstacle for him to continue his studies and fulfill his dream of becoming a doctor. Ben pals around with two stereotypical, socially-challenged friends from MIT, Miles (Josh Gad) and Cam (Sam Golzari), and they work on a robotics project while fantasizing about dating fellow MIT student Jill Taylor, a beautiful, yet bland and unbelievable Kate Bosworth.

Just as Ben is looking to get scholarship cash that requires he dazzle the board with an essay on life experience, he is offered a chance to become part of a secret card-counting club at MIT. Naturally Jill is part of the club and uses her feminine charm to lure Ben further into the endeavor that could help him fund his studies. But savvy movie goers, already detecting the film's love of Hollywood clichés, can tell early on things won't work out so smoothly for Ben. To start, his skills exceed those of the existing "big player" Fisher (Jacob Pitts), which puts the team at risk when Fisher starts to behave erratically. Ben also faces issues from self-serving professor/group leader Micky Rosa (Kevin Spacey alternately playing concerned mentor and calculating mob boss) and Vegas insiders such as Laurence Fishburne's security consultant Cole Williams, facing extinction at the hands of biometric facial recognition software.

Along his path of winning more than $300,000 (which the genius stashes in his dorm room ceiling), Ben becomes romantic with Jill, loses his best friends and watches his ego soar to new heights -- which of course sets the perfect stage of a teen morality drama. Reminiscent of Patrick's Dempsey's pre-McDreamy 1980s teen flick "Can't Buy Me Love" and the 2003 update "Love Don't Cost a Thing," Miles and Cam request Ben no longer participate in their robotics project and Jill lectures her mislead love on how he has changed for the worse by winning cash and too much confidence through the gambling experience. Micky turns vicious on Ben and Cole and uses some old-school muscle to drive home the point that while not illegal technically, casinos frown on those who succeed at card counting

The movie does depict Vegas in its most fantastic glory, even having Ben gaze upon the neon lights of the Strip as he descends into the city on his first venture with the group. That coupled with the fact that "21" wants to portray Las Vegas casinos as innocent victims makes one wonder how much the city funded the film. But it misses in its attempt to woo a young audience with fast cuts and useless takes of characters moving in slow motion. It also makes weak attempts at humor with stereotypical MIT geek jokes and Aaron Yoo's character Choi, one of the students flush with cash, showcasing an excessive case of kleptomania.

"21" ultimately fails in that it paints the student card-counting team as those led astray by a self-serving mentor and Las Vegas as a respected institution that shouldn't be reckoned with. Granted card counting challenges most people's ethics, but the movie doesn't even stay true to its own tagline "a story of five students who changed the game forever" by telling the amazing account of how this actually happened in the mid-1990s. Unlike Steven Soderbergh's "Ocean's Eleven" in which the audience is rooting for thieves George Clooney, Brad Pitt and Matt Damon to rob Andy Garcia's casino blind, "21" makes viewers wonder why they got dealt such a bad hand.

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