In 1998, well-reviewed cardsharp flick Rounders, starring Ed Norton and Matt Damon, grossed under $23 million its entire run. Director Robert Luketic’s 21, on the other hand, outperformed that in only three days.
The film made a big splash this past weekend, refusing to hold in the high-teens, and instead rushing all the way to a $24.1 million opening at roughly 2,650 theaters, easily outgrossing spoof flick Superhero Movie, despite that film playing on more than 300 more screens. The rise in blackjack and poker as both a recreational pastime and somewhat unlikely spectator sport (more on this in a moment) has something to do with 21‘s better-than-expected success, since distributor Sony reported over half the film’s audience was comprised of those 25 and under, mostly males. But clearly this movie — about a motley group of can-do M.I.T. kids and their roguish professor taking Las Vegas casinos for a spin with a complex card-counting-and-probability scheme — also tapped into a hearty aspirant vein. That it’s based on real events, too, only likely increased fall enrollment in statistical variance classes in colleges across the country.
The story centers on Ben Campbell (Jim Sturgess, above left, of Across the Universe), a brilliant but decidedly middle-class student and son of single working mother who, needing money for medical school, finds himself recruited to join an extracurricular group that most definitely isn’t listed in the student directory. Fronted and relentlessly drilled by unorthodox math professor and stats genius Micky Rosa (Kevin Spacey), a quintet of the school’s most gifted students — including the sexy Jill Taylor (Kate Bosworth) — head to Vegas every weekend, armed with fake IDs and an intricate system of signals that tilt the odds of blackjack in their collective favor.
At first Ben only wants to set himself up for debt-free doctoral studies, should a much-needed scholarship not come through. Seduced by the money and upgrade in lifestyle in affords, him, though, Ben begins to push the limits. When he reneges on the agreed-upon protocol and costs Micky some money, his former mentor harshly turns on Ben. This leaves him and his peers in a difficult position, trying to quickly earn back the lump-sum nut they’d built up. The challenge becomes not only keeping the numbers straight, but staying one step ahead of the casinos’ menacing, old-school enforcer, Cole Williams (Laurence Fishburne).
Chalk it up to a need for fraternal diversion in the midst of a cruel world, or perhaps just the proliferation of cable sports channels desperate for new programming, but over the past five to seven years poker (celebrity, professional and otherwise) has experienced a surge in popularity. It’s become a staple of both the college relaxation circuit, and a surprisingly durable form of spectator entertainment in its own right. Las Vegas and Atlantic City have benefited (tourism is up 17 and 11 percent, respectively in the last half-decade), but so have any number of ancillary market players, from videogame manufacturers to how-to authors.
Still, despite the spike in popularity, recent cardsharp and gambling movies haven’t always made a killing at the box office. Sports bookie flick Two for the Money did under $23 million in the fall of 2005, despite the presence of Matthew McConaughey and Al Pacino. Drew Barrymore and Eric Bana’s Lucky You, meanwhile, wasn’t so lucky, grossing a meager $5.7 million last spring after being traded around from release date to release date like a low-value chip by distributor Warner Bros.
Sturgess, for those that didn’t see Across the Universe, reaffirms himself as a sympathetic, highly likable screen presence — perhaps even more so than in that film because here he’s front and center, without any outlandishly colorful production design and musical numbers to overwhelm him. But what helps give 21 a leg up is its story as much as its execution.
Legally Blonde helmer Luketic delivers a slick, engaging and well cast movie. Based on Ben Mezrich’s nonfiction tome Bringing Down the House, and adapted for the screen by Allan Loeb (Things We Lost in the Fire) and Peter Steinfeld, 21 artfully condenses all the necessary math-and-code bits one needs to know to decipher the art of the M.I.T. gang’s con. Then it just lets you go along for the ride. Of all the turns that the movie takes — including Spacey changing from rakish to menacing back to somewhere in between — 21 never stops surfing along on a surplus of cool. For for those that like games of chance, it persuasively pitches a winning rap — that big-play success, and all the fortune and accouterments that come with it, is right there for the taking, in the next hand. For the full review, from FilmStew, click here. (Sony, PG-13, 122 minutes)