Kevin Spacey leads a gang of math nerds counting cards in Las Vegas in 21, a fiction movie adapted from the book Bringing Down the House: The Inside Story of Six M.I.T. Students Who Took Vegas for Millions.
Ben Campbell (Jim Sturgess) is a math nerd at M.I.T. looking to become a med student at Harvard. The biggest obstacle to this dream is money; he’s gambling everything on a scholarship and hopes that a robotics competition he’s entered with buddy-nerds Cam (Sam Golzari) and Miles (Josh Gad) will help make him a stronger candidate. Math teacher Micky Rosa (Spacey) has another option. He runs a team of fellow math students who travel every weekend to Las Vegas, where they win at black jack by counting cards. They work in pairs, use false identities, and have worked out a system of getting in and out of games to optimize their talents. Ben isn’t so sure but decides to join up due to his money problems and due to the presence of fellow counter Jill Taylor (Kate Bosworth), the girl of his non-math-related dreams.
At first Ben shows remarkable talent for this new job, but soon — as with any adrenaline-soaked enterprise — he starts to replace braininess with cockiness and thinks maybe he doesn’t need the non-gambling Micky after all. Unfortunately for him, Ben’s riskier behavior coincides with the growing attentions of casino security official Cole Williams (Laurence Fishburne).
My biggest problem with this movie is the subhead of the book from which this film is adapted: “The Inside Story of Six M.I.T. Students Who Took Vegas for Millions.” I wanted more of this inside story. 21 is at its best when we’re seeing how the students ran their counting operation — the codes they used, the partner system that helped deflect the attention of the security officials (until it didn’t), the math abilities required for card-counting. As the movie droops into interpersonal dealings — between Ben and Micky, between Ben and Jill — I felt the movie cooling off. You expect a little sex and a little jockeying for the big-dog position in a movie like this, but the story’s real action is in the numbers and how these kids and their skills slid under casinos’ radar.
Luckily, 21 has enough of mechanics to make up for the soggier emotional parts of its story. I’m not back on the Kevin Spacey bandwagon but he mostly stays out of his own way here, letting Sturgess (the dreamy-eyed Jude from Across the Universe) have the focus of most of their scenes together. And Bosworth, though not adding much to the story, wasn’t as jarring as she can be.
While the hard cold numbers made for this movie’s best characters, we do get some warm and human-seeming relationships between people in scenes between Ben and Cam and Miles. It’s in these scenes that you remember the movie’s fun premise — that college kids could, at least for a little while, beat the very big and dangerous Vegas money-making machine. B-
Rated PG-13 for some violence and sexual content include partial nudity. Directed by Robert Luketic and written by Peter Steinfeld and Allen Loeb (from the book Bringing Down the House by Ben Mezrich), 21 is two hours and two minutes long and is distributed in wide release by Sony Pictures.