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‘21’ – Or, how to beat the odds in Vegas

By: Jean Cress, Special to The Press-Tribune
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M.I.T students have pulled off some fairly innocuous public pranks through the years, such as hiding the office of an incoming college president, landing and exploding a weather balloon during a Harvard/Yale game, and putting a realistic-looking police cruiser atop the school's landmark dome. But the biggest stunt in M.I.T. history was pulled off in secrecy, when a small group of students used their math skills to figure out how to beat the odds at blackjack and take Vegas casinos for millions. 21 is based on a 2002 article in Wired that became a best-selling book about the exploits of the M.I.T. math team who combined card counting with hand signals and code words to avoid getting spotted by casino security. Card counting is a mathematical strategy that allows a player to beat the house at blackjack, and although card counting is not illegal, players are permanently banned from the casino if they are identified. Anything can happen in Las Vegas, and though it's a real stretch of the imagination to think that math geeks can become rock stars, that's exactly what happened. The students' real life adventures make for a pretty compelling story but the Hollywood touch has been added to make for a compelling movie. Screenwriter Peter Steinfeld's fictional additions are mostly effective, such as the addition of a sadistic casino security/enforcer, Cole Williams, who is being replaced by face recognition software and is desperate to hang onto his job. Laurence Fishburne brings more dimension to the role than the screenplay deserves, playing the (literally and figuratively) heavy-handed character with glee. However, the romance between the initially shy Ben Campbell (Jim Sturgess,) and his sexy teammate Jill Taylor (Kate Bosworth) strains credulity and slows down the plot. There are a number of things wrong with 21, such as Kevin Spacey's egotistical casting of himself and his portrayal of the downright creepy Professor Micky Rosa. Spacey's act is just a little too slick and he delivers his lectures, in and out of the classroom, sounding like he's giving Hamlet's speech to the players. But the filmmakers and casting team get one thing very right in Sturgess as Campbell, the shy, yet brilliant student who “ needing to pay school tuition “ finds the answers in the cards. Sturgess believably makes the transition from guileless geek to Vegas hot shot to older-but-wiser med student with ease, remaining thoroughly likeable throughout. The odds look very good for this kid to become a star. Ben's partners in crime, Huff (Liza Lapira,) Fisher (Jacob Pitts,) and particularly the quirky and likeable Choi (Aaron Yoo), provide good ballast and manage to look like they actually do know how to count cards. Only the box office receipts will tell if this film goes bust. 21 may not break the bank, but it should be a good diversion for students looking for a place to recuperate from spring break. It's also a welcome reminder that sometimes the geeks really do inherit the earth. Runs: 2 hrs 2min. Rated: PG-13 for some violence and sexual content including partial nudity Now Playing: Century Roseville 14