21 (2008)

Badly flawed

Content written by Tony Macklin. Originally published on April 10, 2008 in Fayetteville Free Weekly.

When the movie "21" was announced with Kevin Spacey and Laurence Fishburne, it sounded like a winner.

When everybody else involved in "21" was mentioned, it was doomed to be a loser.

"21" came from "Bringing Down the House," a nonfiction book by Ben Mezrich, about an actual group of MIT students who employed a system using card counting to win huge amounts of money, especially in Las Vegas casinos.

We follow the evolution of the MIT team, its rise, and its fall.

The book crackles with tension, personality, and intrigue. It had to make a good movie. But it doesn't. Hollywood got hold of it, the sharp potential was blunted, and instead of being an engrossing tale about ethics and verisimilitude, "21" became a soap opera. Critics compiled in Rottentomates.com were only 33 percent positive about "21."

The movie "21" sacrificed its authenticity for commerciality; instead of doubling down, it dumbed down. But the movie opened #1 at the box office. Commerciality usually works for a week.

The first misstep was the director. The director of a film gives it vision and style. With all the directors around who have a sense of social acumen, the producers picked a director who has none -- Robert Luketic.

There is no way that Robert Luketic is the right director for Mezrich's book. His last direction was the wretched "Monster-in-Law" (2006) with Jennifer Lopez and Jane Fonda. It was the nadir of Fonda's career.

Previously Luketic had taken us on that trip of tripe "Win a Date with Tad Hamilton" (2004). Before that he helmed "Legally Blonde" (2001), which was a nice piece of froth.

Those three films are not suitable preparation for "21," unless you want to turn it into commercial pudding.

The main character in "21" is Ben Campbell, played by the innocuous British actor James Sturgess. His character has little relation to the book's protagonist.

In the book author Mezrich gave Jeff Ma the alias of Kevin Lewis, because Ma wanted his real name concealed. (In the film Ma has a cameo as a dealer at Planet Hollywood.)

The movie changes his name once again. Peter Steinfeld ("Analyze This") and Allan Loeb (six episodes of the convoluted TV show "New Amsterdam") are the busy writers, racing to make "21" a very conventional movie.

The movie contains a lot of contrivances. A high roller's comped room at the Hard Rock is supposedly across from the fountains at the Bellagio. But the Hard Rock and the Bellagio aren't even on the same street. Authenticity doesn't play in "21."

Ma/Lewis's parents were of mixed descent. His father was Chinese and Caucasian; his mother's roots were in Ireland and Taiwan.

He had two older sisters. His parents were alive and together.

In the emasculated screenplay, Ben's father is gone, he has no siblings, and his mother is a struggling single mom. In the movie, Ben is white bread, and Sturgess can play white bread.

Spacey and Fishburne go through their usual paces. Spacey plays Micky Rosa, the mentor of the young card players, and Fishburne is an old school Las Vegas gambling consultant and enforcer.

If the rest of the actors and characters were in another movie, they wouldn't exist. They're bland furniture.

Even the music is loud, insistent and hammy. David Sardy's previous credit is the soundtrack of "Lock, Stock and 2 Smoking Barrels" (1998). His music is a "21" popgun salute.

One of the three executive producers of "21" is schlockmeister Brett Ratner. He's found another film to mess up.

"21" almost survives with a twist ending, but Luketic doesn't have any idea when to stop. He decides to go on and on. An ending that works is trumped by further plodding plotting that robs "21" of any power it might have had.

Luketic feebly takes a hit when he has 21. He really doesn't know how to play the game.

Luketic's best film was "Legally Blonde," but even a pink Chihuahua couldn't save "21."

Maybe Luketic should direct a movie about poker-playing dogs.


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