When I read Bringing Down the House years ago, long before I could think about placing a bet in Las Vegas, it was the type of book that you knew while reading was going to become a major motion picture. As difficult as crafting a movie around a blackjack table would be, this was the story about a group of kids — college students — beating casinos that thrive on vice by outsmarting them. Bringing Down the House is an amazing tale, with twists and turns that put the characters on the run as they attempt to make money at any casino they can before being blacklisted.
I promised myself though, when I saw a preview for “21”, that I wouldn’t compare the book to the movie. It isn’t fair. I tried to compare the movie “Kite Runner” to the book in December, and realized that the book is too juicy for a 2-hour film. The same problem exists here, so you have to give the screenwriters their opportunity to highlight, emphasize and embellish upon what they think the key aspects to the story are.
The story, simply, is that at MIT in the early 90s, a professor began using his position to recruit the most intelligent mathematicians on campus to join a blackjack team. Using a team format, the group would count cards, and the leader would sit down when the deck was most favorable, and bet larger amounts. Over time, if uncaught, the team technique is unbeatable by casinos — it gives the players a huge advantage. The team is comprised of spotters that sit at a table and play the minimum, not focusing much on winning or losing but merely playing to keep the count alive, and then calling in the leader when the table is hot. The leader needs to count cards, vary his bet amounts to win the most, play optimal strategy and attempt to stay unsuspicious. After all, casinos don’t like losing money.
At the center of both the book and the movie is the best of the MIT’s findings, a money-starved genius born to count cards. In real life, he’s Jeff Ma, founder of ProTrade Sports. In the book, he’s Kevin Lewis. In the movie, he’s Ben Campbell, played by Jim Sturgess (“Across the Universe”). Campbell is a Harvard Med dreamer, but with the cost of $300,000 seemingly impossible, his dream seems to be slipping through his fingers. That is until his favorite professor (Kevin Spacey) and dream girl (Kate Bosworth) recruit him into their team.
If having read the book gives me any advantage, it’s to see up close the decisions made by the screenwriters. Their focuses were, most notably: to establish Campbell as a legitimate boy genius, to focus on the double life that attending class and spending secret weekends in Las Vegas invokes, to trace the path of the relationship between Campbell and his dream girl, and to focus on the man/group of men trying to stop them. Focusing on these elements limits the twists and turns of the plot, giving us a singular struggle between Campbell’s team, their professor’s ego and the casino’s resilience.
For blackjack players, and most notably those familiar at all with the premise of counting cards, the movie seems to hyperbolize. The idea of a hot deck — when counting indicates the table is in favor of the players, rather than the casino — is used far too often, and no alternative is posed. In reality, a cold deck happens as often as a hot deck, and most of the time, the count hangs in the middle with the casino retaining their small percentile advantage. However, in the vein of keeping things interesting — a task when we’re talking about a card game — the movie doesn’t acknowledge that sometimes the Campbells of the world have to wait a long time for their proper shot.
However, I don’t think this is a movie for blackjack players. It’s a movie for people that don’t gamble, people that think gambling is stupid. It is designed to have that shock effect — wait, we’re supposed to say, blackjack is beatable? In that demographic, of course, is a lot of women, as any trip to a Las Vegas casino will find more men than women. It’s for that reason that the storyline between Campbell and Jill Taylor (Bosworth) is made very substantial. Campbell undergoes a personality change when the money starts rolling in — and who wouldn’t? — and suddenly approaching his dream girl (who has become his co-worker) is no problem.
I’ve read a few reviews that have notably attacked the chemistry between Sturgess and Bosworth. That didn’t really strike me here — and Bosworth said in an interview that they became really close friends, so much so that they couldn’t do their love scene without getting really drunk — but Sturgess does have some issues working with other actors on screen. A couple times, his reactions with his two nerdy friends at MIT wasn’t convincing, but most notably, his chemistry with the character that played his mother was very strange. At first, we see her in the local bar celebrating Ben’s birthday with a cake. But she seems far more like a favorite aunt than a mother until a selfless gesture in the middle of the movie reveals her character. However, at no point does their relationship feel authentic, and I might be picking up on the problems that many people had with Sturgess/Bosworth by identifying this potential weakness in his arsenal.
However, outside of Sturgess’ mediocre performance — not bad, but not great — are some solid supporting performances. Laurence Fishburne, the man in charge of finding card counters, and Kevin Spacey are predictably great. Josh Gad does his best Jonah Hill impression as the movie’s comedic talent, and does a nice job. Actually, “21” is a dramatic story wrapped in a comedic screenplay, and the interplay works better than, say, “The Kingdom” did in 2007. Las Vegas is supposed to be fun, after all.
We’re told, usually, that working with your friends is a bad idea. Mixing relationships with work is a quick way to end a friendship. “21” doesn’t say that. It says mixing work with people you don’t know leaves open the possibility of working with a person that shouldn’t be trusted. In the end, it’s a movie about the importance that trust and friendship plays in a work environment.
That’s not exactly what Bringing Down the House was about, and for that reason, thousands that read the book will be disappointed by “21”. It’s divergence, though, also makes this movie far more a success than I anticipated. And success on a mass appeal will make the investors — notably Spacey as co-producer — happy people.