Ivan Vukovic doubles down on the 2008 film 21, also reading its non-fiction source material for some extra credit, and finds that this Spacey-Sturgess starrer is a bust. (Haha, blackjack jokes.)
“Are you talking about counting cards?”
“No, I’m talking about getting very, very rich.”
He’s actually talking about both, but who could resist writing that biting piece of dialogue?
21 is the story of a Ben Campbell, a 21-year-old MIT student on the verge of graduating who finds himself struggling to find a way to finance his upcoming attendance of Harvard Medical School, which has supposedly been his childhood dream. Ben is recruited by a mathematics professor into a covert team of MIT students who spend their weekends flying off to Las Vegas to participate in a carefully orchestrated team version of card counting in blackjack and making a killing. Life is a party until it isn’t, Ben has a bad night, he loses hundreds of thousands in one sitting, his professor kicks him off the team, Ben comes crawling back and the professor agrees to let them all go back for one last big night, and then: twist! In an act of revenge, Ben has set the professor up to be captured by a casino security head who had spent the majority of the movie closing in on the MIT team and putting an end to their not-illegal-but-certainly-frowned-upon activities once and for all.
This was a very serviceable movie for me back in 2008. It was fun, a little different, and hey—it looked like this Jim Sturgess guy might become something other than the face of the disappointing Across the Universe. Now, the poor writing and the bad tropes were certainly apparent to me at the time, but I was forgiving. I probably saw it once or twice again over the years and while I would even go so far as to say that it hasn’t show many signs of age, it’s become apparent to me that the source material was deserving of not just a better film, but one that is different to the point of unrecognizable in in terms of both tone and characterization.
For this review I decided to do a little bit of extra credit and read Ben Mezrich’s Bringing Down the House: The Inside Story of Six MIT Students Who Took Vegas for Millions, a “nonfiction” tale that was cobbled together through interviews of the real-life MIT students who engaged in these shenanigans back in the ’90s. The lead character was Kevin Lewis, who in real life was actually Jeff Ma. Why that resulted in pulling in the author’s first name for the movie version of the protagonist, we may never know.
I was already aware from back during the time of the film’s release of the controversy surrounding the white-washing of the characters, who in real life were predominantly mixed race. What I really wanted to learn, though, was what elements of the story Hollywood had deemed worth of inclusion and which ones they tossed aside. When talking about how a mediocre film good be improved, there’s no better template to lean on than its source material.
A precedent for this kind of story being adapted extremely well was established just a few years later; after I saw The Social Network, I went back and read Mezrich’s The Accidental Billionaires: The Founding of Facebook, a Tale of Sex, Money, Genius, and Betrayal, which chronicled the exploits of Mark Zuckerberg during the early days of Facebook and served as the foundation for that Best Picture nominee. While David Fincher’s film felt comparatively polished and stylized but not over the top, the book was chock-full of melodrama and reeked of embellishment in a way that the film smartly managed to avoid.
In this case, it’s almost the exact opposite. While Bringing Down The House loses itself in the minutia of how these students played the casinos, the movie throws in arbitrary character motivations for the protagonist to make it easier to root for him, a romantic relationship that could probably be used as the Urban Dictionary definition for the word “blah,” and internal team conflicts that bore little to no resemblance to the actual and far more compelling challenges that tore apart the real MIT team.
The most striking contrast between the book and movie was the complete omission of stakes. In the book, it is repeatedly established that the casino security teams had no legal method for detaining the players so long as they didn’t consent to it, and that a backroom beating would be grounds for a lawsuit and an approach the casinos wouldn’t be careless enough to allow. Instead, the final act of the book focuses on the claustrophobia and paranoia that the MIT team faces in light of advanced security measures that make it increasingly difficult for them to gamble anywhere in the country, let alone Vegas. They weren’t afraid of being escorted off the premises of a casino; they were afraid of no longer being able to even walk into one. The walls were closing in on them, and this all builds to a breaking point when they find their apartments broken into, a sign that the walls separating their double lives have collapsed and that what happens in Vegas no longer stays there.
Leading up to their retirement from card counting, the real-life MIT team experienced conflicts stemming from disagreements on how to react to intimidation from the casinos, varying degrees of commitment to the team, and ultimately a schism. In all of this, there’s never a clear-cut antagonist. The movie takes a very different approach. First, Ben has to contend with jealously from Fisher, another prominent team member who is ostracized once he finally becomes aggressive in the rivalry and jeopardizes the team. The one who does the ostracizing is Professor Micky Rosa. Book Micky is retired, easygoing, and ambivalent if not encouraging when the students decide they no longer need his involvement and the cut of the profits that go with it. Movie Micky is cranky, vindictive, and becomes the clear villain for seemingly no real motivations other than him being somewhat of an asshole.
On the topic of assholes, Professor Micky Rosa is played Kevin Spacey, who made an appearance on my television screen for the first time since his recent scandals. Now, it wouldn’t do much good for me to claim that I was never a big fan of his anyway, but I would really challenge any of his former or remaining fans to point to this performance as an example of what made him a strong actor. This wasn’t the first or last time Spacey placed a grouchy but sarcastic boss/mentor/criminal, but you watch him here barely lift a muscle doing it. Like a former lover you’ve been disenchanted with, you look back and you ask, “What did I ever see in this person?”
That’s not to say that Spacey is the weakest link here. Sturgess plays Ben Campbell as the most passive Bostonian you’ve ever seen, and the movie has a really tough time characterizing him early on. Presented to us an all-work-and-no-play nerd obsessed with securing a scholarship, there’s a scene near the beginning where he’s venting to his friend at work about how he’s going above and beyond and how much he’s sacrificed to have gotten this far and not be able to afford Harvard Medical. He laments, “I gave up everything. I gave up fun. I gave up sex.” His friend interrupts, “No, I don’t think you gave up sex.” Ben agrees, “Okay, maybe not sex.” If this line was meant to be played for laughs, you would never tell by Sturgess’s delivery. What a bizarre piece of dialogue to include. It was as if the screenwriters wanted to tell us, “Okay, yeah, we know he’s a bit of a nerd and works too hard, but don’t worry! It’s not like he’s some kind of freak virgin or anything like that! You can still relate to him!”
Speaking of sex, Ben gets to have some! It occurs later in the movie with Kate Bosworth’s character Jill, a genius girl-next-door who helps recruit him onto the team. While there was a Jill on the team in the book, she fulfilled a very different purpose in the story, whereas Bosworth’s Jill is 100 percent Hollywood fabricated love interest. After reading the book I was prepared to be pretty critical of her during my re-watch, but to my surprise, she’s one of the more tolerable parts of the film in terms of presence and performance. There’s undoubtedly a case to be made for her character fulfilling negative stereotypes concerning passive female leads, but you need only look at how flat and bored the rest of the cast looks in comparison to see that she comes off as a little less flat and a little less bored.
But back to the sex! There’s a momentous PG-13 getting-it-on scene between Ben and Jill that features—and I counted them—seventeen fades in under thirty seconds. It doesn’t do much for me, but the bare back and shoulder fetishists will be pleased. If you’re going to get it on next to a hotel room window overlooking the strip, you have to be careful and cover up the goods, because who knows just how tinted those windows actually are?
Lastly: the narrations. This movie is full of them, and Sturgess sounds just as bored reading them as he does with the rest of his performance. The opening narration details the origins of the phrase “winner winner, chicken dinner!” which the movie insists is something that blackjack dealers shout with regularity when a player is dealt a 21 at any given blackjack table. Here’s the thing: I’ve played a lot of blackjack. More than my fair share, I must admit. During those long hours of sipping seltzer water and arguing with other players about why it’s fine to hit on a 12 against a 6 if you’re playing Spanish 21, I believe I heard a dealer use that phrase maybe once or twice and he did so jokingly. The movie would have us believe that it’s part of the lifeblood of the game. Essentially, the movie paints a false picture of casino culture from the get-go.
21 does deserve some credit, at least during its time. After the clunky opening scene that foreshadows the climax of the movie, we then go back in time and kick things off with Ben biking to school while MGMT’s “Time to Pretend” greets our ears. I heard this song here for the first time, a few months before it started getting endless radio airplay. So for what it’s worth, I can also credit the movie with introducing me to MGMT. For that alone, it has a soft spot in my heart.
That said, the song doesn’t really match the tone of the scene and Sturgess looks like he’s taking a ride to clear his mind rather than coming across as having an intended destination. That doesn’t really end up changing for the rest of the film.