Thursday, March 27, 2008

High Card (21)

21 [PG-13]
Grade: B

Hollywood likes nothing more than cashing in on a trend, but America’s recent card playing fixation hasn’t made for the easiest milking.

In many ways, Casino Royale ran the table, but the fireworks often were away from it. Lucky You, a film I often find myself apologizing for liking, taps into the addictive ups and downs of a gambler’s life. Yet the studied card games, suffused with family melodrama, never thrill.

There’s an obvious reason for this. Have you ever watched other people play cards? Typically, you do so at a holiday gathering, splitting your attention between the hand at play and hustling the leftovers to the fridge. It’s not exactly a spectator sport.

So 21 works out a way to double down. Ignore the game. Play to the high of the hunt and the after-hours lifestyle. Against the odds, this is a winning hand. At its best, 21 is a spirited exercise in style and motion, the type of film that dazzles away its weaknesses.

In order to pay for Harvard med school, an MIT super-brain (Jim Sturgess) joins a secret society of fellow students. Unlike most school clubs, these guys and gals don’t do panty raids or extra French. They treat Vegas like an ATM machine using a system of “counting cards.” Think of it as a Skull and Bones Society for math dorks.

Except these aren’t dorks. This fantasy MIT has few people in need of covering their faces with paper sacks. But unlike the pretty faces of Cloverfield, at least these kids can think their way out of one. One of the endearing (and rare) side effects of 21 is that it makes high intelligence look like a hip aspiration.

This crew stands or folds by the orders of an arrogant professor (Kevin Spacey) who enjoys card playing, math theory, and making vague threats about the perfect murder. His exploits in Vegas have earned him the wrath of a security officer (Laurence Fishburne) whose gumshoe methods are being replaced by technology, along with his business.

What works for 21 is how in on it you become. True, the card counting is never completely explained. If it were, I wouldn’t be here right now, and I wouldn’t be telling you. You enjoy that clandestine thrill of being in on a secret, a glamorous secret at that.

Like any gambler, its luck starts to run out. The ending staggers like a drunk salesman at the MGM Grand at 2:43 a.m. Its characters, never richly flowered, start to fold. The finale has twists, but the bluffs are easy to see.

The film is likely to get browbeaten for taking a real story and sexing it up, chucking mathematical formulas for “MTV editing” and glitz. Some critics will leave it standing bare-assed at the mercy of the False Ruler of Realism. But you’re not reading the words of a critic inherently horrified by Hollywood fantasy. Would you rather watch the “real story,” all plainly shot and earnestly acted, with a pocket protector posse breaking the bank in between Lord of the Rings bull sessions? Besides, I liked MTV back when it still played videos.

Sturgess, who appeared in last year’s Beatles tribute Across the Universe, resembles a young Tom Cruise. His character actually remarks upon it. And the film borrows pieces of Cruise movies – a little Rain Man, a little Risky Business, a little of the talented youngster training under the father figure and winning the girl (Kate Bosworth). Like Cruise in Risky Business, Sturgess gets both the naïve kid and later the seasoned operator. Some might call that an inconsistent character. I call it a kid with a future.


nick plowman said...

Nice review, I still have to see 21, and I am sure it is a good movie, entertainment at the very least. I do not expect fireworks or anything, but something I can see with friends and have a good time. Nothing serious but nothing crap either.

Josh said...

Very nice review Kevin. I agree with you for the most part. I do think it could have been shorter, leaner than it was. The movie gets a little lost sometimes around Laurence Fishburne. But overall, it's enjoyable, escapist stuff.

Wondering what you'll think of My Blueberry Nights. I heard a lot of dissatisfied grumbling as we walked out of the Inwood, and most of the reviews so far have been very mixed. Mine probably will be too.

K. Bowen said...

The thing about writing a review like this is that it feels risky, because 1) deep down, the little arthouse guy in all of us fundamentally questions what you're feeling, and 2) you worry that your reaction isn't reproducible. At the same time, I can't lie; I had a good time with it. And the audience I saw it with was clearly enthusiastic, which isn't always the case.

Josh, I'm feeling pretty positive about Blueberry Nights, but I'm still in the swallowing stage, and I've been known to change my mind after some thought.

Daniel G. said...

Good review, and one of the few positive ones I've seen. I'm one who did in fact browbeat it on several levels, but I was still able to understand it as fun fluff.

"But unlike the pretty faces of Cloverfield, at least these kids can think their way out of one."

Interesting reference since Liza Lapira actually was in Cloverfield. Anyway, point taken.

"One of the endearing (and rare) side effects of 21 is that it makes high intelligence look like a hip aspiration."

This is really true, and I didn't think about it at all. Good catch.

K. Bowen said...

daniel, when i wrote the cloverfield line, it occurred to me that there might be some common cast members. Apparently so. I thought Cloverfield's biggest problem was that you have these allegedly upwardly mobile Manhattan corporate types, yet none of them appear to do a lot of thinking. The film would be infintely better if they were smarter.

I think the "makes high intelligence a hip aspiration" element of 21 is the biggest part of what makes it stand out compared to other fun fluff. What was the line I read once about Kristen Scott-Thomas' performance in The English Patient? Something like, "She makes intelligence seem attractive." I got that same sort of vibe off of this. Which is probably one reason that I didn't mind the way they sexed it up.