Monday, January 26, 2009

Based on Actual Facts (Facts Not Included)

Starz On-Demand

I really feel for Kevin Spacey sometimes. I mean, granted, he's one of our most treasured actors. His performances in The Usual Suspects and American Beauty will be enjoyed and discussed for generations. But, he's a little funny-looking. I'm sure a lot of great roles go around the Pitt-Norton-Damon-DiCaprio axis many, many times before poor Kevin Spacey's agent gets a call. How else can you explain some of the shoddy, shoddy movies he's made even after grabbing those statuettes for his mantelpiece? K-PAX. Pay It Forward. The Life of David Gale. Fred Claus. How hard can it be to put one of our finest American actors in some halfway decent American movies?

Spacey is good in 21 (he's always good) but it's difficult to enjoy his performance because the very existence of his character is a glaring reminder of how badly the making of this film was bungled. Bringing Down the House, the nonfiction bestseller on which the movie is nominally based, was a really exciting and expertly told story about some really unlikely heroes. A group of MIT math studs flew to Vegas on the weekends and used card-counting and signals to rake in millions. Then, they were found out and asked politely but firmly to stop.

21 the film shares only the barest plot details with Bringing Down the House. This is a good little story forcibly mangled to fit every imaginable convention of Hollywood three-act storytelling. Suddenly the best card sharps are beautiful white kids instead of bespectacled Asians. The guy who mentors them, played by Spacey, is an active professor who uses the threat of failing grades in his classes to keep his minions doubling down. Er, no, the real guy was an ex-professor and nowhere near that shady. And Laurence Fishburne, sensing the film's lack of gravitas, comes into scowl for a few scenes. In what capacity, I can't remember.

All of these adjustments would be tolerable were it not for the actual story becoming obscured to the extent that you could not be held responsible for forgetting that this is a movie about blackjack. Director Robert Luketic gives up on trying to explain how card-counting actually works almost immediately, so he's forced to use lots of showy cuts to create tension when otherwise the viewer wouldn't know what's going on. Card-counting is one thing, but the movie doesn't touch strategy either -- it's weird that a movie ostensibly about a card game has so little interest in the game itself. Compared to Rounders, this might as well be a movie about bad blood in a student sewing circle.

So the plot is atrocious. On the other hand, the acting is for the most part pretty good. Aaron Yoo (The Wackness, Disturbia) has another hit in a good run of supporting roles. Josh "Not Jonah Hill" Gad has the only remotely emotional bit of dialogue in the whole movie, and he nails it. I like him; I'm sorry his sitcom "Back to You" got cancelled. Spacey is fabulous assuming you just ignore how ludicrous his character's behavior is; if you've seen many other of Spacey's movies it shouldn't be that difficult. Jim Sturgess, who plays the lead, is a good find. He's kind of like a less self-aware John Krasinski. I would like to see him play a less rote wide-eyed plucky hero type. Fishburne is as always, a massive presence even if he has barely anything useful to do. The one bum note in the ensemble is sounded by the brutally miscast Kate Bosworth. Not since the James Bond people made Denise Richards a nuclear physicist has a Maxim girl been so unconvincing as a brain.

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