Bringing down the book

The film adaptation of a much beloved blackjack book lowers the ante

Sometimes a film just doesn’t have a fighting chance. A textbook example of the how-to-ruin-something-before-it-even-begins formula, recent gambling flick “21” features the director of “Monster-In-Law” (Robert Luketic), stars the dude from “Across the Universe” (Jim Sturgess) and co-stars the eye-candy from “Blue Crush” (Kate Bosworth). Not even a strong performance by an always-alluring Kevin Spacey can right the elemental wrongs that went into “21.” Despite lacking the fundamentals of good cinema (capable director, actors and a convincing approach) the movie is tolerable because it’s driven by such a fascinating story.

21

DIRECTED BY: Robert Luketic
STARRING: Jim Sturgess, Kate Bosworth, Kevin Spacey
RATED: PG-13
SHOWING AT: Area theaters

“21” – which is based on the popular book “Bringing Down the House: The Inside Story of Six MIT Students Who Took Vegas for Millions” by Ben Mezrich – details the exploits of M.I.T. student Ben Campbell (Sturgess) as he joins a secret card-counting team as a means to pay for Harvard Medical School. The team is headed by a painfully archetypal “zany-n’-loveable” professor Mickey Rosa (Spacey) and is rounded out by three students who are suspiciously gorgeous given their supposed math-geekiness.

As the money starts rolling in, the insufferably awkward and vapid Campbell goes through a light-switch metamorphosis into an insufferably arrogant and vapid card-shark. It’s at this point that Spacey’s Rosa reveals his true malevolent colors and casino security agent Cole Williams (Laurence Fishburne) gets hot on the tails of the collegiate card-counters. In the end, the viewer is left with two hours of nauseatingly slick production, shrug-worthy plot twists and vague moralizing.

Director Robert Luketic (“Legally Blonde”) can’t be faulted for taking on a somewhat ambitious project. “21” tries its darndest to come off as a suspenseful action flick, a sweet romance and a quirky comedy. Unfortunately for Luketic – as well as his audience – it’s reduced to a hollow and overly stylized shell of what could have been an excellent film. Coming from the director of “Win a Date with Tad Hamilton,” could anyone have hoped for anything more?

“21’s” dual locales set the backdrop for the film’s starkly different tones. The scenes in Boston lean heavily on sitcom-caliber jokes and a forced likeability of Spacey. Sturgess’ Jonah Hill-esque best friend is the source of many of these ho-hum jokes as he – get this – is fat, horny and frequently eating things. As for Sturgess himself, his Boston persona is based on social ineptitude combined with a supposed heart of gold. This inner morality is difficult to perceive, though, as Sturgess is about as emotive as a parking meter. The first half of the movie is essentially an extended montage of what it takes to mold nerds into profitable nerds. Spacey’s enigmatic charm is the saving grace of the early Boston scenes.

As the team heads to Vegas, there’s a barrage of sweeping wide shots to drive home the glitziness of the town. It’s there that a lifestyle of expensive booze, strip clubs and yelling “Woo!!!” out of and on top of things is vigorously promoted. Also, it is there that the rapid hastening of Sturgess’ and Spacey’s character progressions takes place. Once boring and nerdy, Sturgess is now shallow and cocky. Formally likeable and supportive, Spacey is now manipulative and heartless. All the while, the two are being tracked down by Fishburne, whose one-dimensional character could have been played by a Bloodhound with job-security concerns (if there is such a dog). In the end, there’s the predictable Sturgess/Bosworth hookup, a Spacey back-stabbing and a return to Boston for introspection and revenge.

Because of the combined appeal of high-stakes gambling and Kevin Spacey playing a heartless bastard, “21” falls into the “watchable” category by default. Not unlike a foreman skimping on materials while building a dam (read: hiring Luketic, Sturgess and Bosworth to make a film), the end result is always going to be a disaster. But, not unlike the act of watching “When Buildings Collapse!” there’s a cheap appeal to something void of substance that’s also passively entertaining. Because it lacks the cast to drive such a promising vehicle, “21” will be forever banished to the “The book way waaay better” expanse.