Friday, March 28, 2008

"21" -- * *

Some of the early positive reviews for Robert Luketic's "21" feature pull-quote worthy praise that sound suspiciously fertilized with junket wining and dining, like "should appeal to anyone who's ever dreamed of beating the odds", from a jaw-droppingly ejaculatory review from Variety, and "it's a kick to watch Spacey and a gifted young cast use smarts to deal audiences a winning hand" from Rolling Stone. My similarly obvious metaphor-utilizing thoughts leaned the other way: like Vegas, "21" is flashy, fast-moving, lacking any sort of substance and leaves you feeling vaguely cheated.

Loosely (very, very, very loosely) adapted from Ben Mezrich's book "Bringing Down the House," "21" tells the story of six MIT math students who, under the training of their professor Mickey Rosa (Kevin Spacey), bilked Las Vegas casinos out of supposedly millions of dollars via card-counting at the blackjack tables. Our protagonist here is the brilliant, cash-strapped, eye-rollingly likeable Ben Campbell (Jim Sturgess), who quickly lets his success go to his head, and manages, through all the gambling, to have a crush, back-and-forth patter, and ultimately dalliances with Jill (Kate Bosworth). There are two Asians with minimal dialogue (Aaron Yoo and Liza Lapira) and a jealous whitey with a propensity for argyle (Jacob Pitts) in the group also, but we spend most of our time with Ben and Jill. Complications arise in the movie's second half when casino security dude Cole Williams (Laurence Fishburne) begins to catch on to the card-counting, plus he has an old vendetta against Rosa to boot (his character might as well just be named "Conflict").

I'm of the mindset that when a film is based on a true story, its adherence to the specific facts are borderline-irrelevant, and the movie should be judged on its independent merits or lack thereof. But with every TV spot and web banner touting "Based on a True Story," it's difficult to divest one's self from the fact that all these pretty, white movie stars are playing people who were Asian in real life. If not an indicator for outright racism, it does show a certain disregard, and is indicative of the dumbed-down made-for-mass-consumption nature of the film. But whether a film is based on a true story or not, it's imperative that you feel like a movie is taking place in reality and that the shit in it could actually happen. If this movie had taken place in the 1960s or 70s, I might have been able to buy the specifics of what these kids do and get away with, but all this supposedly happened just a few years ago. I know the movie version is heavily fictionalized, but still, come on. The movie annoyingly never really explains the card-counting mechanics (arguably the story's most interesting element), and our "genius" characters never adapt their signal system even after nearly getting caught numerous times.

I'm not the first one to point out that card games aren't compelling as cinema, so there needs to be other interesting stuff surrounding it to draw us in, and there really isn't here. Instead, the screenplay relies on every single cinematic convention you can think of, resulting in you being able to envision most of the scenes before they happen. You can predict every turn Ben is going to take (ohh, now he's going to neglect his friends for gambling, now he's going to get cocky and lose big, now he's going to learn his lesson), and a big part of that is the script's insistence that he be the most clean-cut likable guy ever. He always just wants to do the right thing, he only gets mixed up in this group to try to afford med school, and he even turns down his mom's money when she offers to help him with school. Me? I long for a brilliant screenwriter like Alexander Payne who dared to have his protagonist in "Sideways" STEAL money from his kind, elderly mother, yet we still loved him.

However, I don't mean to imply that any of the other characters are any less cliche; his nerd friends in particular, played by Josh Gad and Sam Golzari (a.k.a. The Omer-izer), are such dorky, sex-obsessed stereotypes, it's hard to belive them as real people. Gad, in the more demeaning role of the two, is asked to play the wacky fat guy in all its glory, which includes literally swallowing Twinkies whole. We don't even really get snappy dialogue to make the formulaic elements go down easier; there are, instead, lines that nicely punctuate a scene, but don't really make sense or mean anything when you really think about them (e.g.: "I think the best thing about Vegas is you can become anyone you want"). Worst of all, though, is the twisty, suspense set-piece conclusion that wraps the film up. It will be adequately "awesome" for a certain kind of audience member, but I found it to be incredibly stupid, manipulative and eye-rollingly ridiculous. I usually can restrain myself in a theatrical environment, but I actually muttered aloud, "Oh, you gotta be fuckin' kidding me."

Luketic's been a hit-and-miss director for me, honestly. Granted, he's never done any work that really made me acknowledge him as a talent to be reckoned with, but sometimes his style works for what he's doing. His broad direction was a contributor to the lameness that was "Monster-in-Law," but it meshed kind of nicely with the material in "Legally Blonde" and the underrated "Win a Date With Tad Hamilton." Here, he further establishes what kind of a director he is, and shows he can handle productions on a grander scale, but he makes more than a few decisions (other than the general approach) that made me ache. The film is nicely packaged and slick, but it's almost too slick. Everything is vacuously glitzy and shiny, as if to try and dull our senses, and the irritating 'whoosh' sounds and super close-ups used to try to make blackjack more exciting to inexperienced audiences just got on my nerves. There's also an alarmingly loud "trendy" glam-rock soundtrack that leads up to a horrible, horrible, horrible re-mix of "You Can't Always Get What You Want" playing over the closing credits. Other cliches employed are Bosworth's character making her first appearance walking in slow motion, and ... wait for it... an extended shopping spree montage.

Sturgess had a terrific singing voice to rely upon in "Across the Universe," but, while he's not bad here, it's all too evident that he doesn't have a whole hell of a lot of charisma, and his line readings come off as just that. It's also hard to ignore that he's simply too hot for the part he's playing. When he would whine and complain about not having any money for college, all I kept thinking was, "why doesn't he just become a model?" As for Bosworth, when is this girl going to do something to justify her career? The similarly criticized Sienna Miller at least finally fulfilled on her promise this past year or so with stellar, challenging performances in "Factory Girl" and "Interview." To this day, Bosworth's best work is, by far, her single-scene turn in "The Rules of Attraction" as James van der Beek's drunken fucktoy.

Okay. Now for the elephant in the room: Kevin Spacey. Am I the only one who feels personally betrayed by this guy? After delivering superb supporting work for years, he finally got an unbelievable starring role in "American Beauty," deservedly won a second Academy Award, and shot to the top of my 'favorite actors' list. But now, it's been almost a decade since "American Beauty," and his goodwill is nearly squandered, if it isn't already. Since then, he's acted solely in paycheck parts, vanity projects, outright pieces of shit, or shameless Oscar bait. The closest he's come to an inspired performance as of late was as Lex Luthor in the divisive "Superman Returns." I used to get excited about a project when I saw he was in it, but now I usually just take it as an indicator that the movie's probably going to suck. As Rosa (whose villainy is foreshadowed from his first scene), he delivers the same dry, sarcastic line readings he's been giving for the last ten years or so. To his minor credit, the screenplay doesn't give him a whole lot to work with; both him and Fishburne aren't playing characters, they're just devices created to serve certain purposes at various points. Spacey's executive producer credit makes it clear this was a financial endeavor for him, not a passion project, and maybe he's fine coasting, but if I were him, I'd work with an auteur FAST. If I were his agent, I'd desperately be trying to contact someone like the Coen Brothers or David Fincher as we speak.

"21" is nowhere near unwatchable, and certainly isn’t a chore to sit through; it's not even particularly boring (though it is overlong). It's just lazy, which is probably to be expected since the same old shit often sells again and again with audiences. Some folks will no doubt be entertained, and I'm sure word-of-mouth will be positive. It's a movie that's been carefully calibrated to be a profitable, inoffensive home run with the average joe set. There've been numerous other unoriginal or studio-mandated movies that still were made by people who clearly had their heart in the material or were trying to do something to bring it to life, and as a result, worked. Here, it's clear that every element has been tested, evaluated, and crafted to assure profitability and satisfy middle-of-the-road sensibilities. But anyone looking for a movie that (a) offers even a little bit of originality, (b) treats its audience with respect or (c) tries to do more than distract you with infinite gloss and glitz, would be best off seeking out their entertainment elsewhere.


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