Ben Mezrich's 2002 bestseller, Bringing Down the House: The Inside Story of Six M.I.T. Students Who Took Vegas for Millions, was a smart narrative about ... well, you read the subtitle, right? Mezrich recounts a fantastic tale spun by M.I.T. grad Kevin Lewis, who is described in the book as "a math-science whiz kid." Lewis was a new member in the so-called M.I.T. Blackjack Team, which, by the mid-1990s, had been in existence for 20 years as a way for nerds to Hoover up easy dough by counting cards in Atlantic City and Las Vegas. The book is a true-life thriller about a heroic gamble.
The big-screen version of Mezrich's book, 21, is about as risky as playing the nickel slots with 10 cents in your pocket. It's as though director Robert Luketic (Legally Blonde, Monster-in-Law) and writers Peter Steinfeld (Be Cool, as if) and Allan Loeb adapted the book-jacket blurb. They've excised the story's genuine thrills and instead filled in the blanks with blanks, chief among them a drab Jim Sturgess as dreary Ben Campbell, the newbie among the wizened ranks of card-counters.
Sturgess, last seen reducing Beatles songs to Muzak and mush in Julie Taymor's execrable Across the Universe, is about as far from Kevin Lewis as a leading man can get. All he's missing is the mayo for his Wonder Bread — though Kate Bosworth, as the hottest mathlete in history, would qualify if the two didn't generate all the heat of two ice cubes clinking around an empty highball glass. And that pretty much sums up the joyless, boring, hackneyed 21.
Fatally, the movie doesn't have the slightest bit of interest in informing the audience precisely how the M.I.T. Blackjack Team pulled off its scam. No one wants to spend an hour going over the rules, but you need to understand them before you have fun breaking them.
Which leaves us instead with Kevin Spacey as the slick and kindly mentor prone to fits of rage. Even on cruise control, he's a wild ride. Spacey, who also produced, is the sole glint of life in this waste of time and money that shoulda stayed in Vegas.