21

An Illusion Review by Joan Ellis


          

             “21” covers the screen with a fast paced puzzle of premise, process, and answers. Movies based on true stories are usually compelling because real people so often behave in more fantastical ways than fictional ones who lose their credibility when they are drawn too boldly. We just can’t dismiss a true story with, “That would never happen.” (Read “Bringing Down the House)

            M.I.T. and Las Vegas are certainly polar opposites – except for the occasional case of a gifted mathematics student deciding to use one to triumph over the other. That’s the last thing on the mind of math whiz Ben Campbell (Jim Sturgess). Ben is an M.I.T. senior, a gentle genius who has been accepted by Harvard Medical School. He has only one problem: the $300,000 he needs in order to make the commitment. He has none of it.

            In the first third of this movie, Jim Sturgess creates a fine portrait of Ben - dutiful student with grades, board scores, medical school acceptance, a hardworking mom he loves and an iron determination to become a doctor. In a series of good classroom scenes, Professor Mickey Rosa (Kevin Spacey) discovers the math talent of the quiet, earnest fellow in the back row.

            The professor is running a covert operation in Las Vegas with a team of students that flies with him on weekends to pursue the easy money. Ben is not an easy hire. He is loyal to two close friends who are colleagues in a robotics prize contest that may win some money for Harvard. But in addition to the money, Rosa offers Jill (Kate Bosworth). The deal is done. Ben will go from his bike to a limo, from vectors and formulas to counting cards at the 21 table.

            Four of the team are “spotters” who deliver the signals (a hand through the hair, hands clasped behind the back.) Two are the “big guys” who follow the signals. All of them follow the Professor Rosa’s rules to the letter – until one doesn’t. Kevin Spacey really has no peer in the creation of a demon. It is especially unnerving to watch a teacher violate his trust by luring his students to what looks like the easy way through life.

            The visuals are fast and exciting. Both M.I.T. and the casino are painted in the strong colors and flavors that characterize them – the light of the classroom, the dark of the gambling den. No clocks to remind people it’s getting late, no windows to remind them the sun shines outside the dark walls. Cards and codes rush past our bewildered eyes as the team succeeds. Surprises abound. Will Jim wake up? Is Jill an ace? Will the professor get his just rewards? Will people of all ages have fun discussing the ethical subtleties of a card counting scheme that is absolutely legal in the abhorrent culture it thrives in? You bet. You will not nod off in “21.”

 


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