One would expect a movie about high-stakes gambling in Las Vegas and young, attractive savants using their smarts to break the bank at blackjack to be sexy and thrilling. Unfortunately, “21” winds up being about as exciting as freshman calculus.
Based exceedingly loosely on a true story, the film follows a crew of MIT math whizzes who cultivate their card-counting skills to rake in the chips.
Jim Sturgess (“Across the Universe”) stars as Ben, a senior who’s been keeping his nose to the grindstone and maintained an impressive 4.0 average. But just as he’s trying to figure out how he and his working-class mom are going to be able to afford to send him to Harvard Medical School, along comes a devil on his shoulder in the personage of Professor Micky Rosa (Kevin Spacey). Micky used to be a casino card counter himself, but now he leaves the heavy lifting to a cadre of students who have been specially trained to watch the blackjack dealers’ decks and signal their co-conspirators when the terrain is looking hospitable.
The methodology of the scam is interesting, but director Robert Luketic (“Legally Blonde”) and writers Peter Steinfeld and Allan Loeb (adapting Ben Mezrich’s book “Bringing Down the House”) don’t seem particularly interested in it, instead focusing on such yawners as Ben’s attraction to golden girl Jill (Kate Bosworth), his estranged relationship with his nerdy best pals, and the machinations of a casino security guard (Laurence Fishburne) who has a long-standing beef against Micky.
Sturgess is attractive but not particularly interesting, and he pales in both regards opposite Bosworth, who is stunningly gorgeous but possessed of an epic vapidness. She almost single-handedly sunk “Superman Returns” with her stilted and lifeless performance as Lois Lane, and in her second collaboration with director Luketic (they previously teamed on the forgettable “Win a Date with Tad Hamilton!”), she remains an on-screen vacuum.
The only element in “21” that saves the film from being a dreary coming-of-age story grafted onto a two-hour commercial for the Las Vegas Visitors and Convention Bureau is Spacey, who does sparkling wickedness like almost no other actor of his generation. Watching Micky lead Ben astray gives the movie its only jolt of life, even after it becomes clear that Micky is a total rotter, and Spacey single-handedly keeps things interesting even as the plot leads to the eventual double-crosses and triple-crosses that most viewers will see coming from miles away.
“21” has been packaged with lots of flash and sass, but it’s ultimately a sucker bet. Do yourself a favor, and fold.