The city of sin evokes imagery of pure entertainment, pleasure and extravagant indulgence, but for some, Las Vegas is a playground to practice a very serious business, one that is not so much illegal as it is frowned upon. No, the crew from Ocean’s 11, 12 and 13 aren’t on the loose knocking over casino vaults. Beware the MIT math geniuses, counting cards and living double lives in “21.”
The movie opens on an aerial shot of the sprawling Boston metropolis, neatly sliced by the glittering Charles River. The feel of a city that is truly a college town is portrayed by cyclers clad in MIT sweatshirts careening down Mass. Ave. and Memorial Drive and the dark, wooden motif of the pubs decorating the city on every corner.
The thriller-style drama stradles two very different cities: historic Boston and the glitzy, surreal Las Vegas strip. Meet Ben Campbell, played by “Across the Universe” breakout star Jim Sturgess. Sturgess nails the socially awkward yet brilliant persona of all that is an MIT senior with a 4.0 GPA who has recently been accepted at Harvard Medical School.
For his 21st birthday, notice the recurring theme of the 21 goal in blackjack, Ben’s mother and two closest friends (one an eyeglass-wearing, joke-cracking, overweight sidekick, the other a shy pal) share beers and a cake with the Fibonacci sequence on it. Only a lover of math would appreciate such a gesture. Or someone obsessed with “The Da Vinci Code” phenomena.
Focused, bright, and painfully shy, Ben comes from a working class background and is diligent toward achieving the Robinson Scholarship, a full ride to an otherwise unaffordable education at Harvard Med. The worries of money and the pressure he puts on himself don’t weaken his mind or spirit. He answers thoughtfully and intelligently in his classes, where other students admire him and professors take notice.
Ben is approached by Jimmy Fisher, played by Jacob Pitts. Pitts is probably best known for his spot-on timing and unforgettable one-liners in “Eurotrip.” In an empty classroom on the MIT campus late one night, Ben learns about a “club” of students led by Professor Mickey Rosa (Kevin Spacey) who practice counting cards in blackjack. They put their efforts into practice during weekend trips to Vegas. The students play big with Rosa’s money, and win even bigger using a system of “watchers” to spot hot tables and signal the “high-rollers” to come in and clean up.
Ben’s moral fiber shines through, as he first refuses to be a part of the team, then falters for a moment as he considers what would happen if he was not granted the scholarship to Harvard. He just plain wouldn’t be able to afford to attend the prestigious graduate school, and so he makes a deal with the devil, and his teammates. He repeatedly says that he will only participate until the Harvard Med goal of $300,000 is reached. Little did he realize he would be sucked up into a lifestyle of acting, drinking, shopping and just plain galavanting.
Kevin Spacey aptly plays the mysterious and somewhat dangerous Professor Mickey Rosa, a former high-roller card counter turned MIT math educator. His character spreads the allure of leading a double-life, being “whoever you want to be” in Las Vegas. And so the adventure begins.
“Words become numbers and numbers are words. Magazine, 17, Sweet, 16,” and so on. The codes and signals and keeping the count itself are interesting. Nightly practices, jokes and a little romance follow.
Ben and his buds back home were drooling over the elusive and spritely and annoyingly adorable Jill Taylor, (Kate Bosworth) who plays the role of watcher on the team. Now Ben gets to not only meet the “hot rocket scientist,” but he starts to persue her as well.
With logic only MIT students who are on a card-counting “team” could have, the two refrain from any kind of personal relationship at first, concluding that they are business partners. But Las Vegas trips aside, they find that they have much in common and develop a friendship that gives way to more else despite scheming and blackmail in the background of their dangerous game.
In the casinos, the team catches the eye of a dying breed of old-school, thug-style casino security expert named Cole Williams (Laurence Fishbourne). Here the suspense begins — will they get caught? What will happen? Williams’ frustration by losing business to newer computer-based security systems is intertwined with his own unwillingness to retire and to find closure in his life and career.
Based on the book “Bringing Down the House,” by Benjamin Mezrich, this two-hour feature is a mixture of creative cinematography, suspense and a turn of events that’ll have the most cynical audience member gasp out loud.
The premise is statistics, variable change, something described in the movie as “simple math.” Whether you are into gambling, Las Vegas or MIT math geniuses or not, this move is entertaining through and through with added, thought-provoking, movie elements.