Let's be honest: I saw 21 because Jim Sturgess made me fall in love with him in Across the Universe, and pretty much I'd see anything he does now. That is no excuse for the following review which is impartial to the charms of said Brit.
I can't play Blackjack. I can't add fast enough and watching me count to 21 is probably excruciatingly painful for my tablemates. But impressing me with numbers isn't what did it. It's not even the down-home, self-depricating humor of my beloved Beantown that took me in, or the dreamboat, Jim Sturgess. It's not even the fact that two of the main characters were Asian or that I wanted to hug the best friends every time they came on screen. The script and the casting were perfect, the soundtrack's gonna be great and I'm still wondering how the production of the entire look and feel of this film still has me reeling and wanting more; but if you're impressed for anything, let it be for the originality of 21's portrayal of evil.
Sure, gambling's "bad," but...how can cards be so bad? It's wrong to cheat, but...if it's not illegal, is it so wrong to count cards? Lying is wrong, but...even if they're just little lies that we tell so we don't hurt someone? We talk about evil at church all the time. Sin, evil, Satan...sure, sure. They even have slews of films that focus on these topics- they're usually horrific and graphic and better suited for science fiction glorifying gore over relaying an honest, moral concept of sin. I've heard it all before, but honestly- what are the chances of me doing something really, truly bad? And that's exactly how 21 keeps from being a trite, one-dimensional story about college students in Vegas to being the best portrayal of evil I could ever understand.
Kevin Spacey loves to play psychos. He should. He's amazing at it. How he got into playing some math professor at MIT made me beyond curious. But Spacey never disappoints. See, he's not a professor; he's the devil playing a professor. The transition is so slight, so gentle, you hardly feel the grip he has over his student, Ben, first as an intellectual mentor, an encouraging and supportive father figure, then as a friend and confidant, finally to the Vadar-like power that is the only thing about blackjack Ben needs to conquer for total control over the game. It's at that point where Ben realizes he was groomed for this, but in the process, he was allowing himself to be so entwined that, when he's ready to leave, Spacey has him completely caged. So where the first choice was almost arbitrary- you could play or not- what would it matter, really? With a thin, flaxen cord woven of flattery and pride, you are led carefully, gently, until- SLAM! Kevin Spacey OWNS your ass.
It was fascinating enough to watch the development of Spacey's grip over Sturgess, but add to that the production of the film itself, and the temptations of the a colorbook world become very, very real. For a down-home family boy like Ben- hard-working, honest, kind and shy, Vegas seems like the most unappealing choice. Too flashy a temptation- who goes to Vegas and hooks up with smut, drugs, or hardcore anything? But...lead in with an equally softspoken, harmless student (who could have been played by ANYONE, but here, happens to be Kate Bosworth) and the plane ride doesn't seem like that big a deal. It's not about glory, after all. It's just a simple means to an end. And here's where the production went from being really, really good, to making me feel like there was some sort of morality filter put over the lens.
21 could have easily glamorized and glorified the taking of Vegas. Somehow, though- even in the highs of the game and the afterglow of victory, it never feels good. It never feels appealing. The entire time he's winning, all you want is for Ben to get out. Rather than a "stick it to the man" kind of gusto, all you want is for him to get home and be safe. Somehow, in all it's glitz and glossiness, there is a dark, sick feeling just beneath the surface of Las Vegas.
I wanted to get a copy of this movie to show it at church and to seminary classes when we illustrate what temptation is and talk in that nebulously didactic way about the evils of Satan. It's always seemed so unrealistic and sort of a foggy concept beyond a mental grip he can gain, but in 21, the portrayal of evil taking over your entire life through one seemingly harmless choice (which from the start, you suspect is wrong) was so captivating and believable, it made any other smart element of the film fade in importance.