Here’s the deal: this is sheer escapist entertainment.
Ben Campbell (Jim Sturgess) is a brilliant MIT senior with his heart set on attending Harvard Medical School. While he dutifully sells men’s clothing at J. Press on weekends, his $8-an-hour salary just doesn’t meet the steep $300,000 tuition and his widowed mom (Helen Carey) can’t help out much. His future is totally dependent on winning a coveted scholarship, but other competitors are equally qualified.
So when a manipulative math professor, Mickey Rosa (Kevin Spacey) realizes Ben’s a brainiac, he convinces to join a top-secret, high-stakes gambling team (Kate Bosworth, Aaron Yoo, Liza Lapira, Jacob Pitts). Soon Ben begins to spend all his weekends in Las Vegas. Rosa has devised a near-foolproof scheme for ‘counting cards’ at blackjack tables and this lucrative, clandestine enterprise soon dominates Ben’s life, much to the chagrin of his geeky buddies (Josh Gad, Sam Golzari) – and Planet Hollywood’s beleaguered security consultant (Laurence Fishburne) who has a grudge against Rosa.
Based on “Bringing Down the House,” Ben Mezrich’s best-seller about six real-life MIT students who took Vegas for millions in the 1990s, director Robert Luketic (“Legally Blonde”) makes ‘counting cards’ absolutely fascinating, not to mention exciting, aided by Gray Marshall’s flashy visual effects. Writers Peter Steinfeld and Allan Loeb have a tougher time with characterizations, particularly since bland Kate Bosworth (“Superman Returns,” “Beyond the Sea”) seems incapable of more than a couple of facial expressions. As if to compensate, Spacey maniacally cavorts all over the screen, while Fishburne provides believable menace.
Despite some glaring plot loopholes that had me wondering why Ben didn’t rent a safety-deposit box at a Boston bank, on the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “21” is a slick, suspenseful 7. It’s a good gamble.