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Monday, March 31, 2008

21

I’ll bet you 2 to 1 you’re going to like the new movie 21 starring Kevin Spacey and Kate Bosworth, that inseparable team from Beyond the Sea and Superman Returns. I’m beginning to think they are the new Tracey and Hepburn, only without her talent and his hairline. 21 is a movie about Vegas, Baby! And I know Vegas. Actually, I know it back in the day when it was still known as Las Vegas, sans any Baby!, and was about six hundred million watts less glamorous than today, but still quite a Mecca for gambling, sex, and sin.

I lost my virginity, had my heart broken more times than I care to remember, worked in a famous strip casino, discovered a body in the trunk of my car, witnessed a mob hit, won thousands of dollars, lost it all, hosted a local tv program, dyed my hair Kelly green, schmoozed with some of the biggest stars in the business, got my college degree, and met and dumped a starter husband all in the course of the seven years I lived in Sin City. Needless to say, the experiences one finds in
Vegas are not exactly like those you’ll have anywhere else in the world. Where else could you attend a “Women in Lit” class at 8:00 am and be surrounded by “ladies of the night” still in their leopard prints or evening sequins having just knocked off work for the night and now bleary-eyed but determined to work their way through college to make a better life on the other side.

21 is also about a college student doing much the same, that is working his way through school, though not using quite the same method. Instead, 21 concerns the tale of Ben Campbell (Jim Sturgess; Across the Universe), a brilliant student from MIT, who is determined to get into the pre-med program at Harvard, but with a price tag of $300,000 the dream seems unattainable unless he is the lucky recipient of a single scholarship for which dozens of other equally qualified students have applied.

Enter Math Professor Mickey Rosa (Spacey), who has recruited five other exceptional students, including Bosworth as Jill Taylor, to form a secret conspiracy of card counters to work in tandem with elaborate hand signals and word cues so they can play Blackjack and win hundreds of thousands of dollars on weekend jaunts to Las Vegas.

Okay, this sounds like fun, and it is, except casinos tend to pick up on these scams quickly as they have whole teams of experts who sit in front of banks of monitors and watch every move of every individual that walks in. You might want to remember that the next time you visit and do any nose-picking, underpants-pulling, or needless scratching when you visit or you could end up on a loading dock getting your head bashed in by a guy named Guido not even knowing why. I’m not kidding.

When I worked at that certain casino, which will remain nameless (but I’ll just say this: think pink), I was hopelessly in love with a room service waiter by the name of Rhett Butler (yes, that was his real name). Anyway, the room service kitchen was way at the back of the hotel, about as far as you could go before you were met with nothing but desert. I decided on my break one night to go back and see him because, well, he was Rhett Butler, tall, with black curly hair and pale blue eyes, and a kind nature that belied his growing up in the harsh neon glow of the Vegas strip. As I approached the room service kitchen, I passed by the loading docks and heard an odd sound like nothing I’d perceived before. Wood cracking, followed by muffled animal-like gurgling? I peeked around one of the wooden crates and saw two gi-normous men I recognized from around the hotel and casino. They were towering over a third man, duct-taped to a chair. His mouth was taped shut and the goon on the right was bending the seated guy’s fingers one at a time until they broke and lay against the back his hand, useless. Needless to say, I made a hasty (and very quiet) exit back up the corridor and into the casino, never to venture back to that unknown region of the resort again.

I tell this little aside only because something similar is included in
21 and so when I saw it on-screen I felt nauseously nostalgic for a way of life I’ll never truly understand even though I was a part of it for many years.

21 does an excellent job of contrasting the “normalcy” of life in the “real” world of Boston against the glitz and overindulgent lifestyle that is the “norm” in Vegas. It doesn’t make judgments about either, but it keenly shows how it can affect the people who are exposed to it. One of Rosa’s crew, Fisher (Jacob Pitts; also of Across the Universe) exemplifies how easily one can be swayed by the bling and the lure of more, more, more and also how jealousy transcends the salve of money, no matter how much one has. He’s sort of the Heather Mills of the story, only he has two legs and has never slept with Paul McCartney (at least not that I know of).

The real fun of
21 is in watching the action at the tables, and who knew seeing cards being turned over could be so exciting? Credit Director Robert Luketic (Monster-in-Law) and Film Editor Elliot Graham (Superman Returns) with somehow making card games become high drama. The build-up, tension, and quick cuts between cards, players, observers, grafters, and the security experts trying to prove the scam ups the ante and makes the pay-off all the more satisfying.

Maybe 21 should be played on all airliners flying into Vegas as a kind of cautionary tale, right after the emergency information given by the flight attendants. Granted, nobody pays much attention to that, which is sad, but maybe a few people would learn a thing or two along the way about card counting or at least about who isn’t bothering to check where the exits are in the plane. That way if the thing does crash they’ll know who to push out of the way when running to the nearest exit. I’m just sayin’.

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