21 (2008)

(In theaters, April 2008) In many way, this isn’t much of a film. It plays off a tried-and-true dramatic template, it’s never surprising and it never tries anything too ambitious. Even the “adapted from a true story” gloss fades as we realize how conveniently the plot points align together. But 21 makes up for timid plotting by delivering a satisfying look at how a few MIT students were able to turn the Vegas blackjack tables into a profit-generating venture with a mixture of skill, daring and persistence. The method is ingenious (though the film flubs it for dramatic impact: there’s no reason for the “spotter” to remain at the table once the real player starts betting, for instance) and the end results immediately appeals to anyone looking for a clever-than-thou story. Better yet, the film leads straight to the book, which is even better. I’m not too fond of the white-washed casting choices in the film (especially not when Asian cutie Liza Lapira is left in the background while blandy-bland Kate Bosworth gets the lead female role) but that’s not much of a criticism when the rest of the film flows smoothly from one expected beat to another. Kevin Spacey and Lawrence Fishburne have good turns as the adults of the piece. The direction has inspired moments, particularly when it manages to explain an intricate system in a few sharp moments. As for the rest, well, it’s living vicariously through a bunch of young people who have figured how to live large at Vegas’ expense. Cue the alcohol, the clubs, the shopping and the limousines. Will our hero ever manage to regain his inner nerdness? Of course he will. Just hop on the ride and enjoy for a moment.

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