Film Review: 21

I think it’s fair to say that however multicultural and diverse the film industry may be, the overriding geography that comes straight to mind when you think of mainstream movies is America and more specifically Hollywood. Which means that gambling and it’s portrayal on screen becomes a strange juxtaposition of illicit taboo and acceptable secret due to America’s interstate differences and varying attitudes to gambling. This unease towards a simple monetary bet, more often than not, forces the focus of attention away from the actual betting and instead twists everything into just another story about stealing lots of money, a “little man taking down the bank” monopoly heist tale. And 21, sadly, really is no exception.

It doesn’t run away from gambling quite as much as some movies set in Las Vegas do, it is happy to shuffle cards and bet chips but it also is desperate to be something more. It wants to show you it has depth and a personality and tries to keep your attention on the characters and not on the cards and for me, as a result, it ends up becoming simple losing focus. 21 is actually inspired by a true story, there really was a MIT blackjack team that over two decades counted their way to worldwide financial success. But 21 doesn’t have the time to look that widely at the truth and so shrinks everything to fit and rather that making a film that worked, it just left everything feeling very compact and condensed. Everything seems to happen at a million miles an hour, and nothing is ever really expanded or explained. They simply show, imply and hope you accept.

Jim Sturgess, Kate Bosworth & Kevin Spacey (Cast) - 21

But I don’t because everywhere I looked I just saw problems. The cast for instance is a collection of stereotypical personalities: the uncool geek suckered in by materialistic promises (Jim Sturgess), the super sexy girl that he fancies from afar (Kate Bosworth), and of course she just happens to also be a card counting genius, the too laid back for his own good lemming (Aaron Yoo), the manipulative teacher with a hidden secret (Kevin Spacey) it honestly felt like the cast was put together by a committee without any idea of the real world. It’s just a typical Hollywood cliché, designed to make the story “fun” and instead just made it feel repetitive. The story is told by characters you’ve seen over and over and over again and so you never buy into it.

Worse still is the fact that everybody in Las Vegas, aside from Laurence Fishburne, appears to be completely blind. The film makes quite a big thing about how when the “team” are in Vegas earning their money they have fake names, disguises and under all circumstances “must never admit to knowing each other”. Except for the fact that away from the tables they: hang out together, party together and sleep in the same hotel suite. And even more unconvincingly, they then spend most of the film making as much noise and attracting as much attention to themselves as possible. It’s the cinematic equivalent of two people sitting in a cafe dressed as Batman and Robin having just robbed a bank and then claiming they don’t know each other when asked. You just don’t buy into it at it.

Batman & Robin (Only Fools & Horses) - 21

When 21 should become a tense game of cat and mouse that keeps you edge while thrilling you with potential glory, it descends into nothingness as unrealistic characters live a lifestyle that is so in your face that it’s too farfetched to be true.

It isn’t helped by the fact that the tone and pacing of 21 varies so wildly that you’re never really sure how serious it’s meant to be. Setting it completely at odds with it’s truthful origins. There are times when it slows the pace and almost attempts to gain a narrative voice, and if I’m honest those parts are not too bad, but then, mainly when it’s arrives back in Las Vegas, it’ll pick up the pace to empathise the change in lifestyle and instead simply feels fake, completely destroying any connection the few narrative moments managed to create with you. I never been to Las Vegas, but whenever 21 took me there nothing felt as it should. Nothing felt tactile. I didn’t feel as though I could reach out and touch their world. The weight of a chip, the smell of the room always lacking from the on screen visuals. It appears as nothing more than a construct for a fictional story, designed to intensive the glamour and glitz of this non-existent, over the top lifestyle we’re meant to believe they live. And it doesn’t work.

Jim Sturgess, Kate Bosworth & Laurence Fishburne - 21

My biggest problem with 21 though is just how shallow any and all explanations are. I know card counting is real, but also very scientific and complicated, but the much needed depth to help you understand how they can do what they do is glossed over so much, and to such an extent, that you are never sure if they should be losing hands, we just see them winning, over and over, as without attention, it all feels too good to be true. And this sense of disbelief is compounded further by the money they win. They make a big worried point of hiding small sums of money to take to Vegas in case they get caught, but apparently win many multiples more and have no issues returning home with it. I just never understand in my head exactly how the bigger picture fitted together to make the story. It’s all too for the grace of god and that never makes a convincing story.

I am so disappointed by 21 because I clearly remember the first time I watched it being mesmerised by it. This time around though I just found it a mess. Neither the film or the characters ever engage with me, and while I did laugh out loud once, that was all. A token moment of connection lost before it had a chance to register. The rest of the film, my mind wandered, my interest waned and by the end I just didn’t care when or how it finished. It’s such a falling from the memories that I had about it, that it feels like rather than being the famous “winner winner, chicken dinner” line they like to shout, it’s more “reheated microwave ready meal”. It’s fit only for the bin.

4 out of 10 stars (4 / 10)

Posted on by 5WC in Film First Edition

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