21 *** (out of ****)

Director: Robert Luketic
Writers: Peter Steinfeld and Allan Loeb based on the book Bringing Down the House
Cast: Jim Sturgess, Kevin Spacey, Aaron Yoo, Kate Bosworth, Liza Lapira, Jacob Pitts, Laurence Fishburne, Jack McGee
Rating: PG-13 (some violence, and sexual content including partial nudity)
Running Time: 123 min
Release Date: 3/28/08

21 is a loose movie adaptation of Ben Mezrish’s best seller Bringing Down the House. At the outset Ben Campbell (Jim Sturgess), a straight-A engineering student at MIT, wants to go to Harvard Medical School. He as one big problem which is the $300,000 it will take to pay for it. His one hope is a scholarship that will pay his way. But, all of the other applicants have equally good grades and he is told that to win he must dazzle the scholarship committee.

Ben’s has two friends who are typical movie-stereotyped nerds. Their social live is nil but they do have an entry in a robotics contest they work on in their spare time. So it seems that poor Ben will be relegated to the ignominy of a career working as an engineer with a high tech firm.

Then one day in his numerical analysis class Professor Micky Rosa (Kevin Spacey) posses a rather off topic problem. Suppose you were on a game show and the host gives you a choice of choosing the prize behind one of three doors. Behind one is a car and behind the other two are goats. Since you have equal chance of winning the car regardless of the choice, you choose door number one at random. At that point the host informs you that a goat is behind door number three and gives you the opportunity to stay with your original pick or change to the other remaining door. Ben says to change to door number two. The Professor asks why and Ben answers that with the new information given by the host the odds of the car being behind the second door have doubled. The Micky is impressed by this analysis and the fact that Ben is a straight-A student.

Professor Rosa in addition to being a math professor is the leader of a select team of MIT students who play blackjack in Las Vegas. Ben is invited to join the MIT blackjack team and is at first reluctant. He is assured that it is perfectly legal and it will solve is money problem. Finally, Jill Taylor (Kate Bosworth) is sent to persuade him with a little firtation. So after some intense training in card counting we are off to lights and glitz of Vegas. But, Ben tells Rosa that he is in it only until he gets his $300,000 for med school. Sure!

Cole Williams (Laurence Fishburne) is the head of security at the casino and is in completion with some new computer software that has been claimed to be capable of identifying card counters. It doesn’t take long before he has zeroed in on our MIT people. This is in spite of our team’s ingenious strategy of dividing the basic counting function from the “big player” function. The way this works is that the spotter plays the table minimum slowing losing money while diligently counting cards. When the time is right to make the big bets the spotter gives a signal to Ben who plays the part of a rich high roller to coming in and place the big bets. The spotter will insert a code word in a casual statement giving him the count.

While Ben wins a lot of money, he is soon facing Cole in a backroom and getting a serious taste of the casinos displeasure. In so many ways the film has diverged from the real story as portrayed in the Mazrich book. This is probably necessary to fit the story into a movie. However, I think too much effort his placed on building Ben into a sympathetic figure and creating a movie crisis climax ending that the real story is lost in the telling. One almost thinks that the film makers see a need to protect the gambling industries by turning the story into a somewhat cautionary tale. Or, perhaps they feel a moral responsibility to deter us from trying what the MIT team really accomplished? After all they know that almost all of us just aren’t smart enough to pull it off.

I think that most viewers will find this to be a very enjoyable film on balance. But, if you haven’t read the book, hold off until you see the movie.

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