Ben is a working class Boston kid bicycling to school in an ivy-covered world of privilege. He gained entrance to MIT for pre-med and wants nothing less than Harvard Medical School. Harvard was his dream from childhood. He has the grades and the recommendations but not, as the admissions counselor puts it, “the dazzle” for a full scholarship. With his $8 an hour assistant manager’s job at a posh men’s clothing shop, he might be able to save enough for tuition by the middle of his next life on Earth.
One night while reading in a study area, Ben (Jim Sturgess), the protagonist of 21, receives a mysterious summons from another student. Reluctantly, Ben follows down dark corridors to a little classroom where a game of blackjack is in session. Only the student players aren’t just having a little extracurricular fun. The game is presided over by one of Ben’s most formidable professors, Mickey Rosa (Kevin Spacey), and it’s not played for laughs or chump change. Applying a rigorous set of statistical principles, Rosa has devised a method for beating the house in Las Vegas. He was assembled a team of smart students to execute his game plan. Rosa wants Ben to join the team.
21, the latest film to enter the high stakes dimension of gambling, isn’t among the winners. The pacing is flabby, the opportunities for suspense are squandered and the plot, although ostensibly based on a true story, seem prefabricated by Hollywood contractors. 21 includes moments of humor, however, and it has Kevin Spacey. The attractive MIT kids Rosa recruited for his math squad are agreeable to watch, but it’s Spacey who lights the screen.
Rosa is an engaging presence at the head of the classroom. He knows his numbers to be sure, but he also understands how to keep students at the edge of their chairs. Socratically shooting questions left and right, he polishes his rapier mind with a humor that may be deprecating but is never self-deprecating. It’s classic Spacey: superior, fey, scrutinizing, bitchy—closely holding secrets for no one’s eyes but his own. After Ben is brought to the mysterious nocturnal blackjack game, he discovers that Rosa hasn’t honed his theory of beating the house for the cerebral thrill of it all. “I’m talking about getting very, very rich,” he says. Ben is reluctant to get involved, although the sources of his character are less than brilliantly elucidated. Rosa is quietly insistent. He knows all about Ben’s financial hurdles and tempts him with riches in an almost cooing voice, the sibilant tone of the serpent whispering into Eve’s ear. And then he follows with a soft-spoken threat: Letters of recommendation can be withdrawn, high marks can slip.
Rosa also insists that there is no danger to his scheme. Cut to the boiler room of a Vegas casino where the security chief, an underdeveloped character played by Laurence Fishburne, is beating up some sharpie who thought he could beat the house. We know the kids from MIT are in for more than they wagered.
Naturally romance stirs between Ben and one of his female teammates along with the power rush of winning, winning, winning. Working with a set of false ID cards, disguises and false identities cooked up by Rosa, the math squad is living the high life along the tawdry neon tenderloin of Vegas. One of 21’s most promising tangents concerns Ben’s double life. He must keep his weekend exploits from his friends and family; after a while he begins to separate himself from them. How could they understand the heights he has climbed?
But like much else in this literal-minded movie, Ben’s mixed feeling are chewed up through voice-overs but seldom shown with any deep psychological insight. 21 suggests that it’s possible to bypass Lady Luck at the gaming tables, but the screenplay isn’t smart enough to sidestep every Hollywood cliché in the playbook.