Ben (Sturgess) is liberated from his geeky life when his college professor (Spacey) spots his genius for maths. Teach’ draws him into a card-counting scheme on the tables in Vegas, winning money to pay his college fees. Until things go wrong…
Robert Luketic is so over pink. After establishing himself as Hollywood’s go-to guy for any script that dotted its ‘i’s with hearts, the Legally Blonde director has ditched pastels for something more boysy - and he proves himself capable of frothy amusement for either gender.
Based on a true story, 21 follows Ben Campbell (Jim Sturgess), a handsome college nerd, who is inveigled into a group of teenage card-counting blackjack players led by his maths lecturer (Kevin Spacey). So follows a journey of riches won and lost, sexual awakening and really good suits.
This is as much a piece of enjoyable fluff as anything else Luketic has made; it’s just got moodier lighting. The nerd who gets a taste of the cool life is a cinematic stalwart, so it stands to reason that Ben’s first few outings in Vegas provide the film’s zippiest scenes. His fellow scammers are a job lot of characters, allowed only two facial expressions each, but their propensity for taking on new identities every time they hit the tables makes them fun to be around. That people wishing to pass unnoticed would probably not don big hats, goofy glasses and wigs from Madame Skanky’s House of Hookers is rather beside the point. Realism is unwelcome in this realm of wish fulfilment, and that’s just fine.
Luketic places the film in capable hands with his two leads. Bosworth is sweetly determined as love interest Jill, a combination of mutual exclusives: maths genius and prettiest girl in school; a career gambler father, and happy childhood. But it’s Sturgess who makes the movie. The young Brit, who threw heart and lungs into Across The Universe, has an everyman appeal that gives the movie a sturdy centre. Spacey is clearly enjoying himself immensely as the preening Svengali, but his once-subtle charisma has given way to a smirking need to hog the lens, while Laurence Fishburne makes an insufficiently threatening villain, as a security guard outdated by technology.
Being a film about dodgy gambling, 21 can’t resist some sleight of hand in the final act, but it’s an obvious con that won’t draw any gasps from its big reveal. This is a film that's at its most enjoyable when it knows not to play beyond its means.
The Ocean’s Eleven: The College Years mood makes for a breezy good time, even if there is, like Vegas, precious little substance beneath the glitz.
Reviewed by Olly Richards