Director: Robert Luketic
Starring: Jim Sturgess, Kevin Spacey, Kate Bosworth, Lawrence Fishburne, Aaron Yoo
Running Time: 123 min.
** (out of ****)
21 is a movie that shows us everything, yet doesn’t get us to feel any of it. I know you’re supposed to review a movie based on what it is rather than what it isn’t but I can’t help myself this time because the missed opportunities were just too great. As I watched I imagined what a Scorsese would have done with this material, which desperately needed to be presented as an R-rated character study if it was to be taken seriously at all. It’s probably an unfair comparison but there’s no escaping the fact that this feels like the made for television version of what should be a much better film.
Despite not knowing the first thing about the film’s topic and having never played Blackjack in my life, after seeing the trailer and commercials I was actually looking forward to seeing this. Which is why I’m so astonished how bad it is. Even if I had no idea going in the guy who made Legally Blonde directed it I would have been able to guess, which isn’t good. He’s in over his head here. It almost borders on complete incompetence as it’s clumsily directed, poorly written and paced and features a really terrible lead performance.
A film that should have been so much fun instead comes off as depressing and a big reason why is because the characters have no depth and aren’t likable. Chief among the offenders are a wimpy protagonist who’s a bland, passive loser and a college professor who belongs in a mental institution instead of an academic one. There is one character I liked, but I’m convinced it’s only because she looks amazing, which is fitting considering the film’s focus on emptiness and superficiality. Any pleasures to be had here are entirely on the surface. I may have never read Ben Mezrich’s best-selling novel, Bringing Down The House, from which this is based, but it says a lot about how bad this film is that even I thought it was obviously unfaithful to the source material.
21 tells the story of graduating M.I.T. senior Ben Campbell (Jim Sturgess) who has his heart set on attending Harvard Med School. With stellar grades he’s accepted but the problem is getting the $300,000 to go there since he has virtually no chance of getting a full-ride scholarship. But his mathematics professor, Micky Rosa (Kevin Spacey) sees great potential in Ben and offers him a spot on his secret Blackjack team consisting of 5 students who have mastered the science of card-counting, which they’ve been using to fleece Las Vegas casinos on weekends. Ben initially refuses but his desire to go to Harvard Med and also win the affections of team member and school crush Jill Taylor (Kate Bosworth,) prove the offer to be too tempting to turn down. When they hit Vegas the real action begins and under Micky’s guidance the card-counting method raises the ire of Cole Williams (Laurence Fishburne), head of security at Planet Hollywood, who will do anything to bring this team down.
The main characters may have been counting cards but I was fully occupied counting something else, namely missed opportunities and mistakes in a film that should have been great. Actually, forget about great. I would have settled for just good. The first of many problems is the casting of Sturgess, who beyond being just bland takes it a level further with a truly whiny and irritating portrayal. Imagine the shyest, most socially awkward and clumsy kid you’ve ever met. Now, magnify that by about 10 and you have Sturgess’ performance, which more closely resembles a puppy dog begging for adoption than any real college student. What’s the first thing he does when he enters the casino? He trips. Of course we know this is all set-up so he can be “corrupted,” which pays off later in the film’s most laughable scene.
Supposedly Sturgess had a dialect coach for the film since it’s far easier for studio executives to waste time and money hiring an actor with an accent only so they can teach him how to get rid of it. It didn’t work as he struggles mightily with his American accent the entire picture and I could swear I saw him concentrating hard at points. He even manages to give a bad voice-over performance in the many unnecessary segments of narration. The film also employs another narrative device that’s really been bothering me lately: the opening flash-forward. A movie opening at the end for no other logical reason other than that it can. Here we get that in conjunction with the pointless voice-over so it’s twice as bad. Memories of Sturgess' inspired work in Across The Universe is erased as he still has a long way to go before proving himself as a dependable leading man.
After suffering through nearly an hour of M.I.T. Ben stuttering and stammering through his social interactions when they all finally get to Vegas things don't improve much. Luketic, somehow manages to make Vegas look washed out and visually uninteresting, a rare accomplishment. We never get a clear idea of the counting scheme or how it works because he’s too busy showing off fancy camera tricks and as a result, the casino scenes don’t come off nearly as well as they should. He also adds a third act twist not realizing he delivered it about twenty minutes too late when viewers will be ready to pack up their bags up and go home. The movie runs just over two hours, yet feels much longer because it’s so poorly paced, as if scenes were thrown in at random. At least it features a great soundtrack, but again, that’s a superficial pleasure.
Since 1999 I’ve been waiting for Kevin Spacey to do something that’s maybe just half as interesting as his Oscar winning role in American Beauty. That wait continues. His Micky Rosa is essentially Lex Luthor teaching at an institute of higher learning. Spacey plays him in exactly that same style, a choice that can at least partially blamed on the script and direction. What kind of college professor would hang out with his students in Vegas over the weekend and help them rip off casinos? Just that question suggests all kinds of intriguing possibilities for Spacey’s character and the story, all of which go unexplored so he can be presented as a sneering egomaniac.
The man is so arrogant and unlikable it’s a miracle any student would listen to a word he has to say no matter how much money is involved. A smarter decision would have been to play him as an actual mentoring figure so the underused Lawrence Fishburne could shine as the chief heavy. The direction they take Micky late in the film is ill advised, not to mention laughably over-the-top. I'm not asking for a long back story on the guy but it would be nice if he wasn't presented as a stock villain and there was a trace of humanity in Spacey's portrayal, suggesting there's a real person in there.
This is the latest in a long line of poor choices for Spacey and he doesn’t have any excuses this time since he co-produced it. As usual, he drags his Beyond The Sea and Superman Returns co-star Kate Bosworth along for the ride, who I must say has never looked better. Also, for a change, she isn’t sleepwalking and appears healthy and motivated to actually try to give her first complete performance. But Luketic isn’t the kind of director who can wrangle that out of her and the script doesn’t give her anything to work with. We learn nothing about Jill, which is a shame because I would have actually liked to.
The relationship between Ben and Jill is written as a complete joke to the point where we're literally forced not to care about it. She understandably has no interest in this guy but about ten minutes and one trip to Vegas later she’s jumping him in a hotel room. Why? Luketic wants you to think it has something to do with Ben’s remarkable, overnight transformation into an arrogant stud, memorably depicted in slow motion shot of him strutting into the casino like the second coming of Tom Cruise. What an embarrassment. Of all the film’s flaws this scene is indicative of its biggest. That it fails to show us how this experience has changed these kids’ lives, specifically Ben’s. Instead it just tries to tell us... unconvincingly.
The movie caused some controversy when it was released because all the characters upon which this film was based were Asian-American. Here only two are (played by Aaron Yoo and Lizzy Lapira) and they’re relegated to bit, background roles. That’s especially a shameful in the case of Yoo, who was so funny and entertaining in his small role in Disturbia last year and could have really contributed if given the opportunity.
Normally, I would write off discrimination allegations like this as groundless and accuse everyone of being too sensitive since producers should have a right to cast whomever they like, but this time it’s a little different. I have no problem with them changing the ethnic background of the characters so long as it serves a purpose and the right actors were placed in the roles. Unfortunately, Sturgess is terrible so their excuse of “picking the right actor for the part” doesn’t fly and the other main players aren’t believably intelligent in a story that’s supposed to be based on it. Still, this might be more a case of Hollywood stupidity than discrimination. At least I hope it is.
This is one of the few films this year where as I was watched I actually thought all the blame should fall entirely at the director’s feet. Some feel it should anyway but I never subscribed to that theory when so many bad scripts are being written that no filmmaker could possibly save. This script, which is obviously weak, could have at least been salvageable if a director with just minimal vision were at the helm. I can understand how it had a strong opening weekend back in March since the commercials did a great job of promising us something Luketic just didn’t have the skills to deliver. Say what you want about Legally Blonde, but at least it was intentionally dumb. I’m all for losing myself in fun and mindless entertainment but 21 only fulfills one of those criteria well.