21 (Sony Pictures, PG-13)

film21small.jpgSturgess’ geeky awkwardness turns quickly to cocky arrogance the more money he wins in Vegas, yet he manages to stay true to the essence of his character.

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Having never read the nonfiction book by Ben Mezrich, Bringing Down the House, on which the new film by director Robert Luketic (Legally Blonde) is “loosely” based, I had few preconceptions going in other than the basic knowledge that it was about a group of MIT students who counted cards in Vegas, raking in millions. I was pleasantly surprised at how thoroughly entertaining the film was. While this version is likely a bit more glamorized than what may have actually taken place, it comes off as both believable and enjoyable, mostly due to the fine performances of its cast, most of them virtual unknowns.

The lead role of Ben Campbell, a soon-to-be graduate of MIT who has been accepted into Harvard Med but comes from a working-class family unable to afford the astronomical tuition, is played to subtle perfection by Brit Jim Sturgess, known mainly from his recent turn as Jude in Across the Universe. Sucked into the underground club of card-counting sharks, Sturgess’ geeky awkwardness turns quickly to cocky arrogance the more money he wins in Vegas, yet he manages to stay true to the essence of his character. The fact that Sturgess is not yet a “big name” movie star adds to the credibility of his performance. After this film, however, I think his days under the radar may be over. With his gentle good looks and laid-back manner, he could easily become the next big thing (and if you saw Across the Universe, you know he can sing, too).

Kate Bosworth, as Ben’s teammate and love interest Jill Taylor, is the only actor portraying one of the students with any real star power behind her name (the others are played by Aaron Yoo, Liza Lapira and Jacob Pitts), yet she doesn’t overpower the film, keeping her role right in time with Sturgess’. A creepy-as-ever Kevin Spacey rounds out the pack as their math professor/team leader Micky Rosa, a former card counter himself who now uses the brilliant minds of his students to parlay stretch limos, comped suites at Vegas’ finest hotels, and bundles of cold, hard cash. The story only gets a bit far-fetched when the casino’s security watchdog, played by Laurence Fishburne, catches on to the kids’ scheme.

Overall, 21 is a highly entertaining two hours at the theater that will leave you wishing you were really, really good at math. | Amy Burger

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