Given the tepid critical response and the lack of a big box office name in the cast, the ongoing appeal of "21" is a bit hard to fathom. A look at the calendar, specifically the academic calendar, may solve the mystery. For college students are the most obvious target audience for this movie, and they are past spring break but not yet booking for final exams. So what better entertainment of a weekend night than a (fact-based) fantasy about a team of MIT brains who try to beat the house playing blackjack in Vegas?

They follow the system of math professor Mickey Rosa (Kevin Spacey): basically card-counting, but done with verbal cues, hand signals, and team cooperation. Rosa emphasizes that this is a business, not gambling, and that emotion can't be allowed to creep in and endanger the whole enterprise. Near the film's beginning, he spots and recruits math whiz Ben Campbell (Jim Sturgess) to fill a spot on his team. (Collegians will recognize that only a job at Google would lure somebody away from this easy money and high life. )

Ben, intent on getting a full ride scholarship (The Robinson"”no relation, more's the pity) to Harvard Med, resists, until one of the team members, Jill Taylor (Kate Bosworth), visits him at his dead-end job and, uhh, recruits him. After a brief crash course in Rosa's system, it's off to Sin City and immediate, head-turning success. Ben and fellow Big Player Jimmy (Jacob Pitts) score big and begin to develop a rivalry.

That results, inevitably, in their tipping off anti-cheating honcho Cole Williams (Laurence Fishburne) that the casinos he works for are being played. Eventually, Ben gets the girl, gets a big head, and gets spotted. Then he gets a beating, as well as a dismissal from the team for violating Rosa's rules. The movie turns almost completely formulaic at this point, the only tension being exactly how Ben will redeem himself , make peace with his estranged nerd friends (Josh Gad and Sam Golzari), get the girl, the fellowship, and, oh, yeah, wreak vengeance on the prof. (See the appeal?)

Director Robert Luketic and screenwriters Peter Steinfeld and Alan Loeb toy with some of the ways in which the film could have gained some depth, opposing Boston (real) and Vegas (fantasy) visually and thematically. Tied up with that is the notion of changing identity, the siren lure of Vegas that, there, you can be whomever you wish, that a nerd can be a high roller. For all its genuflections to clich, the movie might, might have had something original to say.

But that would have missed the target audience, so we are given the formulaic ending. (Rent Martin Scorcese's "Casino" if you want to see the "right" ending to the fantasy.) Sturgess doesn't have the acting chops and Luketic lacks the nerve or the industry clout to pull it off.

"21" is rated "PG-13" mainly for violence and some pretty tame sexual content, neither of which is much different than what you'd see on TV. If you're looking for something to counterbalance the incessant Vegas hype that TV supplies, look elsewhere.


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