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21: Counting Sheep 

Adaptation of Ben Mezrich's Bringing Down the House doesn't hit the jackpot

Wednesday, Mar 26 2008
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Ben Mezrich’s 2002 best-seller Bringing Down the House: The Inside Story of Six M.I.T. Students Who Took Vegas for Millions was a smart narrative about ... well, you did see the subtitle, right? Mezrich more or less recounted a fantastic tale spun by an old acquaintance from Boston, an MIT grad named Kevin Lewis, who’s described in the book as “a math-science whiz kid,” and who was a new member in the so-called MIT Blackjack Team, which, by the mid-1990s, had been in existence for some 20 years as a way for the whiz kids to hoover up easy dough by counting cards in Atlantic City and Las Vegas. Their leader was a former prof named Micky Rosa, who, turned out, was as much bastard as brother in the operation.

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click to enlarge PETER IOVINO - The con is on ... the audience.
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The con is on ... the audience.

Mezrich’s position was both enviable (he had in his possession a true-life thriller, the story of a perfectly legal heist conducted by high-rolling brainiacs) and a little disagreeable (he had to explain to the uninitiated how to count cards, without sidetracking his tale into a math-quiz ditch). But he succeeded — with the help of nerds all too eager to share tales of their heroic swindle, one hell of a gamble pulled off beneath the unblinking eyes of the city that never sleeps, shaves or showers.

21, the big-screen version of Mezrich’s book, ain’t no gamble at all — it’s about as risky as playing the nickel slots with 10 cents in your pocket. It’s as though director Robert Luketic (Legally Blonde, Monster-in-Law) and writers Peter Steinfeld (Be Cool, as if) and Allan Loeb adapted the book-jacket blurb rather than crack the spine. They’ve excised the story’s genuine thrills and instead filled in the blanks with blanks, chief among them a drab Jim Sturgess as dreary Ben Campbell, the newbie among the wizened ranks of card counters.

Sturgess, last seen reducing Beatles songs to Muzak and mush in Julie Taymor’s execrable Across the Universe, is about as far from Kevin Lewis as a leading man can get. All he’s missing is the mayo for his Wonder Bread — though Kate Bosworth, as the hottest mathlete in history, would most likely qualify, as the pair winds up a twosome and generates all the heat of two ice cubes clinking around an empty highball glass. And that pretty much sums up everyone and everything else in 21, a movie about Getting Away With It in the glitzy and glamorous digs of Vegas’ schmanciest casinos and ends up joyless and a total bore.

Partly that’s because 21 doesn’t care to inform the audience precisely how the MIT Blackjack Team pulled off its scam. The screenwriters pretty much reduce their explanation to a flash-card primer that describes the team’s system in code words: “Car,” for instance, means the deck is plus-4, while “Magazine” means it’s plus-17, which means ... couldn’t tell you, sorry, because the central premise of the film is one in which the film has no interest whatsoever. Which is why movies about gambling seldom work: No one wants to spend an hour going over the rules, but you need to understand them before you have fun breaking them.

Which leaves us instead with the characters to consider, a forgettable batch of whozzats and whasshisnames: Jill (Bosworth), the cutie who lures desperate Ben, in need of $300,000 for med school, with come-hither looks; Fisher (Jacob Pitts), the hothead hotshot in need of a time-out; Choi (Aaron Yoo), who flashes cash without seeming to make much at the green felt; and Kianna (Liza Lapira), the other woman on the team who also doesn’t seem to serve much of a purpose. In fact, Ben’s the only one who makes the team any money — which begs the question of how it has functioned for this long as a profitable enterprise given his relative-newcomer status.

And then there’s Rosa, elevated from shadowy ex-prof to tenured lecturer and played by Kevin Spacey, who also produced. Rosa’s the kind of character Spacey can play in his sleep — and ours. He’s the slick and kindly mentor prone to fits of rage, especially when Ben back-seats his intellect during one tense session and drains off a few hundred thou while playing with passion — or something as close to passion as Sturgess can muster. But even on cruise control, Spacey’s a wild ride, the sole glint of life in an otherwise pleasureless film.

Stripping the real-life drama and replacing it with phony fear (courtesy the fists of Laurence Fishburne), the filmmakers have pared their story to the most hackneyed of three-act film-school fairy tales — the whiny rise-and-fall film in which a bright young thing ditches his dorky pals and wills his way to a fortune, then loses it all in a pique of stupid hubris, then redeems himself only after his pile of cash turns to a pile of shit and his pals have left him for dud. He’s a schmuck with brains, a dullard with cutes — a bust, in other words, in a movie that wastes a lot of time and money and really, really shoulda stayed in Vegas.

21 | Directed by ROBERT LUKETIC | Written by PETER STEINFELD and ALLAN LOEB, based on the book Bringing Down the House by BEN MEZRICH | Produced by DANA BRUNETTI, KEVIN SPACEY and MICHAEL DE LUCA | Released by Columbia Pictures | Citywide

Reach the writer at rwilonsky@dallasobserver.com

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