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.