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This review was written for the festival screening of "21." 

South by Southwest

AUSTIN -- Just as veteran gamblers realize that the house always wins, moviegoers know what happens to wide-eyed kids who strike it rich by ignoring the angels on their shoulders. Still, a predictable rise and fall doesn't keep the ride in "21" from being enjoyable. Moviegoers should respond well at the boxoffice to the film's glossy pleasures.

The true -- if sometimes too perfect to believe -- story scripted by Peter Steinfeld and Allan Loeb centers on Ben Campbell (winningly played by Jim Sturgess), a gentle brainiac whose Harvard Med dreams hinge on a scholarship he's unlikely to get. Ben is a loving son and earnest student who rebuffs repeat invitations to join some MIT colleagues in a scheme to make a fortune counting cards in Vegas.

Only the entreaties of a lovely blonde (Kate Bosworth) change Ben's mind, but once in, he goes whole hog: His supernatural facility with numbers allows him to be the team's cleanup hitter, swaggering up to blackjack tables once scouts have identified which are "hot," then walking away with tens of thousands of dollars. The system may never fully make sense to the viewer, but we accept that the kids know what they're doing, and with the help of a killer pop soundtrack, we enjoy going along for the ride.

Ben's growing ego (he's blowing off nerdy buddies and trusting his apparent infallibility) has him pointed toward a hard fall, but there are external threats to this high-roller lifestyle as well: Lawrence Fishburne, as a casino detective behind the ubiquitous "eye in the sky" surveillance cameras, has a nose for card-counters, and Kevin Spacey, as the prof behind the cheating ring, has zero tolerance for students whose brashness costs him money.

Spacey and Fishburne demonstrate a willingness to take their characters into seriously menacing territory, but director Robert Luketic (known for rom-coms like "Legally Blonde") seems not to want to exploit them fully. Spacey never quite plumbs his "Glengarry" intensity here, and the backstory of Fishburne's last-of-his-breed house dick is explored only enough to justify some plot movement.

The lack of intensity won't matter much to the young audience to which "21" is geared. Escapist moviegoers happy to live out a flashy fantasy get a brief comeuppance and still walk away from the table with a little something in their pockets.

21
Columbia Pictures
Michael De Luca Prods, Relativity Media, Trigger Street Prods.
Credits:
Director: Robert Luketic
Screenwriters: Peter Steinfeld, Allan Loeb
Based on the book "Bringing Down the House" by: Ben Mezrich
Producers: Dana Brunetti, Michael De Luca, Kevin Spacey
Executive producers: William S. Beasley, Ryan Kavanaugh, Brett Ratner
Director of photography: Russell Carpenter
Production designer: Missy Stewart
Music: David Sardy
Costume designer: Luca Mosca
Editor: Elliot Graham
Cast:
Ben Campbell: Jim Sturgess
Mickey Rosa: Kevin Spacey
Jill Taylor: Kate Bosworth
Cole Williams: Laurence Fishburne
Kianna: Liza Lapira
Choi: Aaron Yoo
Fisher: Jacob Pitts
Running time -- 123 minutes
MPAA rating: PG-13

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