Blackjack and immaturity add up to only 21

by Beacon Staff • March 26, 2008

Imagine a group of attractive twenty-somethings flying to Las Vegas every weekend with millions of dollars to enjoy the good life. No, it's not the story of Paris Hilton or the latest "Real World" cast. It's the plot of 21, a new movie based on the true story of MIT students who learned how to legally beat blackjack and ended up taking home millions from nearly every casino on the Strip.

21 is based on the bestseller Bringing Down the House, the 2002 book which told the story of the students' undercover blackjack teams. The film follows Ben Campbell (Jim Sturgess), a working class Bostonian struggling to pay tuition at MIT. When math professor Micky Rosa (Kevin Spacey) recruits him to join the blackjack team and make quick cash in Las Vegas, he is hesitant but eventually agrees to play until he raises enough for school.

Typical to most movies about sudden riches, Ben falls victim to the excesses of Vegas and refuses to quit the team, even as he is pursued by a menacing pit boss (Laurence Fishburne). Of course the plot ends up resolving itself and the students learn the clicheacute; message of money's inability to buy happiness. But the movie provides an interesting perspective on the Vegas lifestyle as these students undergo a transformation from geeky MIT kids to flashy highrollers every weekend.

Even if 21 is predictable at times, the visuals compensate. Shot in Las Vegas and Boston, the locations bring the film to life and those involved couldn't be happier about it.

"It captures such a feel from the book," said Ben Mezrich, author of Bringing Down the House, in a roundtable interview with The Beacon. "I feel like Boston has never looked better in a movie."

Aside from the scenes in MIT dorms and classrooms, many other Boston locations play a role in the movie, including the Chinatown gambling houses where Ben is initiated into the team, and a team dinner held at the 24-hour South Street Diner. Instead of the crime-ridden depictions of Dorchester and South Boston recently seen on screen in The Departed and Gone Baby Gone, Boston appears as a quiet and studious city, the polar opposite of everything the characters see in Las Vegas. Meanwhile, Cambridge is seen only from the perspective of MIT students solving equations and lamenting about not getting a date.

Shooting in actual casinos was a slightly disorienting experience, especially for Sturgess, who hails from England.

"I went to the toilet in the casino and I came back and I couldn't find the set," he told The Beacon in a separate roundtable interview. "To lose a film set in a casino is not an easy thing to do, but it's only possible in Vegas."

Although they enjoyed filming in Sin City, the cast started to lose sight of reality after six weeks of shooting and parties.

"It was great coming back to Boston after being in Vegas, because Boston is the closest place in America to England," he said. "We were desperate to sit in a normal pub and drink a normal pint and speak to normal people and not have crazy cocktails and large-breasted women in our faces."

One of the main criticisms of both the book and movie is that this story seems almost too ridiculous to be true and it feels that way on screen. Aside from the fact that Sturgess could never pass as a geek, the confidence of the actors throughout the film doesn't match the awkwardness of their characters.

Additional scenes revolving around strippers cashing in the team's chips or attention-drawing shopping sprees through Caeser's Palace seem fictitious and completely impractical for a group so intent on maintaining their hidden identities.

While certain aspects are adjusted to make the story clearer, Mezrich stands by his work.

"The idea was to compress a time period into a readable narrative thriller and also compress characters and protect the subjects anonymity," he said.

Jeff Ma, the former MIT student who was Mezrich's source and the inspiration for Ben Campbell, agrees.

"There are little things that [Mezrich] did take liberties with, but if we played the game of 'Did This Happen? Did That Happen?' I bet you wouldn't be able to guess what didn't happen and what did," said Ma.

Even though former players on the blackjack team have expressed displeasure with the outlandish stories that could jeopardize their futures, neither Ma mpr Mezrich has any regrets about the success of the book and movie.

While 21 is an entertaining adventure of gambling and excess, certain fictitious elements feel as if they were thrown in haphazardly. The romantic relationship between Ben and Kate Bosworth's character, Jill, is awkward. It's only worsened when she propositions him by saying "The Hard Rock comp'd me a suite.Wanna see it?"

The strength of the movie lies in the characters' constant fear of being caught and the thrills they experience as they gamble small fortunes, making the romance an unnecessary element.

21 tries to convince you that it's rather easy to earn millions in Vegas by simply adding or subtracting point values while at the same time escaping the brass-knuckled fists of casino managers.

The filmmakers might not be successful at persuading you to drop everything and hop on the next flight, but the story told is just outlandish and thrilling enough to keep the audience entertained.