This film about Blackjack as played in Las Vegas by a handful of over-intellectual MIT students and their cunning professor is just as fun as the premise suggests. From setup and joyride through turning point and climax, 21 is able to keep anyone interested in numbers and gambling on the edge of their seats. The logic of the story is simplified, but still kept at a reasonably intelligent level, and the characterizations, while slightly overdone, are brilliantly executed by a fine cast headed by Kevin Spacey and the talented Jim Sturgess.
The director is Robert Luketic, the young Aussie who helmed Legally Blonde. He returns to some familiar material here, with the presentation of East Coast college life. The difference is that his representation here is more authentic, and there are some genuinly interesting scenes from this part of the film in which 21 pays attention to detail both technically and interpersonally. Sturgess' sensitive performance is the key element here - he converts material which could otherwise have felt conventional into personalized and flowing narrative.
Enter Kevin Spacey and the concept of blackjack card counting. In order to make the film seem more interesting and advanced, the filmmakers make their concept seem like something only candidates for the Nobel price would be able to do, but their drive and fine pacing helps them get away with it. The most interesting aspect of 21, besides a well-adjusted presentation of MIT/Vegas/blackjack, is the psychology of our protagonist. His up-down-up rollercoaster is predictable, but also well told and indredibly well acted. Sturgess plays Ben Campbell invitingly and asks the audience to sympathize with him, to learn with him. It is a useful approach which fits perfectly with Spacey's alluringly potent adversary.
21 offers a hip getaway, much like what the kids in it get. And despite the explicitly standard messages of not biting more than you can chew and knowing when to stop et cetera, there are also some subtle challenges on what can be rendered superficial and what we should make of the increasing amount of gambling in our time. If you want to take it one step further, you could claim that 21 is an implicit attack on the funding system of American educationial institutions, but that might be pushing it.