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Effective 21 a Cautionary Tale of Greed, Gambling

  • Christa Banister Contributing Writer
  • Updated Jul 25, 2008
Effective <i>21</i> a Cautionary Tale of Greed, Gambling

DVD Release Date:  July 22, 2008
Theatrical Release Date:  March 28, 2008
Rating:  PG-13 (for some violence and sexual content including partial nudity)
Genre:  Drama
Run Time:  123 min.
Director:  Robert Luketic
Actors:  Jim Sturgess, Kevin Spacey, Kate Bosworth, Aaron Yoo, Laurence Fishburne, Liza Lapira

Anyone who’s seen Ocean's 11 (or any of the less-successful sequels) knows that it’s not particularly easy to be a big winner in Vegas. After all, the elaborate schemes that George Clooney and his friends cooked up to steal their millions needed a sizeable crew, a healthy bankroll and more gimmicks than the stereotypical used cars salesman has up his sleeve.

Of course, that was fiction, and winning big isn’t any easier in the real world. Well, unless you happen to be a math whiz with a knack for counting cards. Based on the true story of MIT students who actually managed to beat the system, 21 is a slickly crafted cautionary tale of what happens when seemingly normal people get rich quick and start enjoying the high rollers’ lifestyle a little too much.
Setting up the story 2,700 miles away from the bright lights of Vegas in Boston, Ben Campbell (Across the Universe lead Jim Sturgess) is a brilliant guy in a major quandary. See, he’s wanting to attend Harvard Medical School but is $300,000 short of his goal. And even though he’s got what it takes academically, there’s only one full-ride scholarship available, something his counselor assures him he’s not getting because he doesn’t stand out enough. So with a dead-end retail gig and a single mom without much money to her name, Ben’s chances of making it to med school are looking pretty grim.

But instead of procuring a sizable student loan like most applicants would, one of Ben’s professors may be able to help in what’s an all-too-convenient plot twist. After Ben effectively impresses Micky (an enjoyably snarky Kevin Spacey) with comments he’s made in class, it seems his prof has found his latest recruit. Admiring Ben’s decision-making ability with reason, not emotion, Micky thinks he’ll be a perfect fit for his pet money-making project.

As evidenced by the geeky company that he keeps, (his friends like to build robots for fun) and his close relationship with his mom, Ben is typically a stand-up guy one can’t help but root for. So when he discovers that Micky is wanting him to count cards for big jackpots in Vegas, Ben is reluctant. In fact, he says no on a couple of different occasions.

But with the help of a pretty girl named Jill (Kate Bosworth) that Ben’s already got an unrequited crush on and Micky’s passive-aggressive persistence, it’s not long before the temptation is much too great. So with a few secret signals, clever disguises and his math sensibility kicked into overdrive, Ben is ushered into a glitzy world he never could’ve imagined in his wildest dreams. Not only is he a much cooler version of himself while he’s sipping free cocktails in well-tailored suits, but he’s earning some serious cash in the process.

Like the standard-issue gamblers in Vegas who swear they’ll stop once they reach a certain dollar figure, Ben repeatedly says he’s going to quit once he reaches the $300,000 mark. And every time he reassures himself (and Jill) that his Vegas days are limited, everyone in the audience knows that won’t be the case, and that Ben’s downfall is imminent.

It’s often been said that “what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas.” But in Ben’s case, his Vegas adventures can’t help but color his everyday experience. Whether it’s logistical concerns of where to store his huge stash of cash (hint: it’s not behind the removable foam ceiling of your dorm room) or the lies he has to keep up with family and friends about his weekend whereabouts, Ben’s secret life is causing more trouble than it’s worth. And even though everyone—including Cole, the guy behind the scenes who takes him down (played effectively by Laurence Fishburne)—sees Ben’s demise coming from a mile away, it’s still an effective, entertaining story of how even the best of intentions go sour in a hour when greed and lies are involved. Always a timely lesson, even if it’s been played out many times before.


  • Drugs/Alcohol:  Since drinking and gambling seem to go hand in hand in Vegas, there’s plenty of alcohol consumption in the movie.
  • Language/Profanity:  A smattering of your typical cuss words, including instances of the Lord’s name is taken in vain. But unlike other films of this ilk, the profanity isn’t quite as prevalent.
  • Sex/Nudity:  After much flirtation throughout the film, Ben and Jill sleep together. Kissing and the removal of clothing is shown, although nothing aside from Jill’s bare back is shown. There’s also a couple of scenes in a Vegas club where the women dancers are very scantily clad, one flashing her bare breasts in one scene.
  • Violence:  Once Cole figures out that Ben is counting cards, he warns him that he better quit by punching him repeatedly, leaving Ben bloodied and bruised.