“The best thing about Vegas,” says Kate Bosworth’s Jill near the beginning of 21, “is that you can become anything you want.” Such tacky jingoism may befit a young MIT whiz making millions at blackjack along with her professor and a crack team of student card-counters, but it can’t fuel a very good film about them. There is, indeed, little demystification of Vegas in 21. Main protagonist Ben (Across the Universe’s Jim Sturgess) has stars in his eyes pretty much from start to finish, and director Robert Luketic actually seems to think the place is glamorous. (Decadent, yes; sexy, maybe; but glamorous? Hell no.)
The roller-coaster ride of 21 is thus of the commonest sort. Never wanting to get too investigative, Luketic gives Ben’s entrée into gambling a sensationalist, Masonic quality (“Amazing things can happen on the inside,” says his oleaginous professor, played by Kevin Spacey) and quickly shows him gallivanting about town on a shopping spree, and having his way with Jill in a plush Bellagio suite. The perspective is both trite and unsettling. Never mind that the actual MIT students on which the film is based were mostly Asian males (there are two Asian characters in 21, one male, one female, both minor); the equal opportunity given to Bosworth’s character is quickly made preposterous through misogyny. At one point, Spacey tells her she’ll figure out how to deal with the Vegas alias he gives her, because she “has a lot of clever little outfits,” and, even though he’s the film’s Mephistopheles, one feels compelled to laugh at her. (In fact, she later proves him right.)
21 almost gets worthwhile with Laurence Fishburne, who plays the shrewd head of an old-school Vegas security team quickly being phased out by new facial-recognition software. Said technology also threatens the blackjackers, but not enough is made of this end-of-an-era tug-of-war, nor of the kinds of ethical suspensions it requires (Ben says he’s gambling only to raise money to pay for Harvard Medical School, which is itself a fairly avaricious ambition). For a film about the exploits of a bunch of braniacs, 21 sure is dumb.
21 is now playing at AMC Yonge & Dundas (10 Dundas St. E.) and Empire Theatres at Empress Walk (5095 Yonge St.).