Directed by Robert Luketic
Written by Peter Steinfeld and Allan Loeb
Based on a book by Ben Mezrich
Starring: Jim Sturgess, Kevin Spacey, Laurence Fishburne, and Kate Bosworth
In 2002, Ben Mezrich released his bestselling non-fiction story, Bringing Down the House, about a group of MIT students who counted cards to win millions playing blackjack and beat the house in Vegas. Now, the story has taken a new form in the recently released movie 21.
This film is the traditional underdog story with a slight twist. Ben Campbell (played by Jim Sturgess and based on Jeffrey Ma ’94) is an MIT student whose math skills, unassuming nature, and rationality make him perfect for card counting. After being recruited by his professor (Kevin Spacey), Ben joins the MIT blackjack team (which is one member short since “Jimmy got a job at Google”) in hopes of making enough to pay for medical school. What starts out as a plan to make $300,000 and quit soon transforms into an addiction to the game and lifestyle as Ben begins to ignore all of his rational thoughts, the skill that made him an asset in the first place. In the midst of backstabbing and back room brawls with the very scary Laurence Fishburne, the audience wonders whether Ben will be able to return the clear-headed guy he was or if Vegas will destroy him (hmm, let me guess).
First off, this movie is meant to be fun; it’s not a documentary and many elements from the book were changed to give the story a more traditional plot and Hollywood style. Most notably, Sturgess is not Asian, and since Ma is not upset about this fact alteration, it really should not be used to discount the film. Actually, Sturgess’ inability to pass as a real MIT student has less to do with his race and more to do with his style. For someone who is supposed to be a shy and rather awkward MIT student, he is far too expertly layered and well-coiffed without the look of exhaustion typical of the institution he represents. I had a hard time believing he’d spent his academic career coding in his room or tooling in a lab. But then again, it’s a movie, and of course they’ll cast attractive actors — I mean, Kate Bosworth plays one of the other team members.
Once you get beyond the fact that the actors do not look like typical MIT students, and none of the classrooms were actually shot at MIT (they were not allowed to shoot on campus, instead filming at Boston University), the movie is actually a lot of fun. The director of photography, Russell Carpenter, did an impressive job lighting the two cities of Boston and Las Vegas to contrast Ben’s worlds. Boston, with its warm and natural sunlight, feels like a home, whereas fake fluorescence pervades Vegas, and even when the characters venture further into Nevada, all we see is the harsh light of the desert. In addition, the card counting scenes were well done with close up shots of chips and voice-overs telling the audience the count. This is even more impressive given how boring watching someone count cards in reality must be.
Despite Sturgess’s somewhat controversial casting, he does a good job as Ben Campbell. Odd Boston accent aside (he’s actually British), he makes his character sympathetic even at the height of his self-engrossment; despite his loss of compassion, you still like him and want him to succeed. You know that Ben’s great personality is always just beneath the surface — under the designer suit — and so you understand his actions.
Overall, 21 is a fun movie that does what it aims to do — entertain. The film is not a historical representation of the events that occurred, nor is it a lesson on how to count cards. Instead, it’s about the little guy beating the system, a boy growing up and finding his story, and how MIT kids actually can be pretty cool.