There is no earthly reason that a film about gorgeous young people making vast sums of money in Vegas, spending it in the most conspicuous and glamorous ways possible, generally making a mockery of the story's nominal moral about losing yourself to the dark lord Mammon, should be even a little bit tolerable. But damned if I didn't find the glossy and shallow 21 to be quite enjoyable despite its rampant clichΓ©s and tossed-off narrative. It's about pretty people being pretty and Kevin Spacey being a snarky dick, and sometimes those things are just about all you need to make for a pleasing couple of hours.

The plot goes a little bit something like this: Ben Campbell (Jim Sturgess) is a senior at MIT, studying various sorts of higher maths and robotics on his way to medical school at Harvard - where he has already been accepted, because he's just so hugely smart. Thing is, Ben is poor and he cannot come even close to paying for med school without receiving an extremely competitive scholarship. Cue Professor Mickey Rosa (Spacey), a genial evil man who supplements his teacher's income with a team of bright young math whizzes trained to count cards in blackjack and effectively create an unbeatable system for bilking the house. The team includes the most beautiful girl at MIT, Jane (Kate Bosworth), the hothead, Fisher (Jacob Pitts), the Asian goofball dude, Choi (Aaron Yoo), and an Asian girl with pretty much no personality, Kianna (Liza Lapira). Ben joins their antics and much money is won; but on the horizon looms Laurence Fishburne as the Laurence Fishburne Character, who once crossed swords with Mickey in the past. Glitzy capering ensues.

The strangest thing about that story is that it's rooted in fact: for decades, MIT has been home to student-run (not faculty) blackjack teams dedicated to finding mathematically unstoppable methods of winning that game. 21 is based upon the book Bringing Down the House, a roman Γ  clef about the mid-1990s incarnation of the team led by Jeff Ma, who in no meaningful way resembles Jim Sturgess. It's not as easy to get exercised by that fact as one might like; changing an Asian-American to a Caucasian with a shaky American accent is hardly the most egregious of the story's crimes against reality. And even that is missing the point by a wide margin. Nobody going to see 21 wants a hyper-realistic look at life among the impoverished amoral intellectuals of the American university technocracy. They want to see pretty people making the Vegas high life look easy. In no small terms, this movie is a fantasy.

Admittedly, it's a fantasy that sets its goals extremely low. Director Robert Luketic is not an artist and he's not out to make art - he's trying to make the shiniest movie he can, and he succeeds. Outside of Steven Soderbergh's Ocean's films, I can't name another recent film to make Vegas look so damn appealing as this one. I don't know if Luketic or his cinematographer, Russell Carpenter, have extensive careers in television commercials (though I do know that Carpenter shot the powerfully bizarre The Wizard of Speed and Time feature), but they sure as hell sell Sin City. So it's not necessarily a harmless fantasy, either. But it's seductive as all get-out, which means that somebody was doing their job right.

The real problem with the film (for who among us can truly complain about the occasional bit of morally dubious fantasy?) lies in its pretty young cast, who are much more pretty and young than they are good actors. Sturgess, continuing the rather quick jump into ubiquity begun with Across the Universe and The Other Boleyn Girl is the biggest liability, primarily because he has the biggest role: his Bostonian accent is charmingly inept and his emotional range consists solely of wide-eyed greed. I'm compelled to steal an observation from a friend of mine, and note that his eyes are so wide that they look constantly dilated, like he's high all the time. With that thought put in my head, I can't help but recall that he looked much the same in Across the Universe, and while I certainly don't think he was actually on drugs during the shooting of these films, I do think that his trademark glassy-eyed vacancy is not a brilliant choice.

In the supporting cast, Kate Bosworth gives the same exact performance she always does: hot and sassy. It's not as dismaying in a film that requires so little of her as it was in e.g. Superman Returns, but just because a film asks you to play one note, it does not follow that you must give only the minimum asked of you. Aaron Yoo also gives the same exact performances he always does, the hellishly annoying comic sidekick, and he is unsurprisingly painful to watch.

Which leaves the heavy acting living to Fishburne and Spacey, and both men do just fine. There's not much one can say about Fishburne; he plays a large threatening (but honorable!) black man in pretty much all of his films these days, and there are not many actors I'd rather see do that. But Spacey, now Spacey is a delight. Every year that we get farther from Beyond the Sea is a year that I grow more secure in the hope that his terrible phase of playing blandly noble leading men in godawful films has completely given way to a second era of playing sarcastic wiseasses. Because Spacey is a truly brilliant sarcastic wiseass, and no matter how lousy the script he's doing it in, it's something special and wonderful. And 21 doesn't even have a lousy script: it gives the actor some distinct meat to gnaw on, and though he never goes nuttily villainous on us (the role isn't that of a nutty villain, just a cynical manipulator), this is still Old Kevin and not New Kevin, and for that I cheer.

He's the perfect point at which to wrap up the movie: fun and nothing else, but enough so that it's worth the while. Gaudy glitz can be its own reward, and pretty people are always easy on the eyes, and with not much else looking to fit that bill for a while, it's hard not to be at least a little excited about 21.

6/10