Based on the Ben Mezrich nonfiction Bringing Down the House: The Inside Story of Six MIT Students Who Took Vegas for Millions, the film 21 boasts a far snappier title, yet I wouldn't recommend viewing it if you're even a day older than that. It's not often that a true story is re-told with such aggressive fraudulence, but 21 is a rare and rather spectacular failure - one in which your bullshit detectors wail at you early on and don't stop until you're rendered nearly deaf. The movie is directed by Robert Luketic, who also helmed Legally Blonde, and it's all just slightly less believable than Legally Blonde.
As Mezrich's title neatly summarizes the plot, let me nutshell the particulars. Jim Sturgess - the fantastically gifted Across the Universe star, forced here into Americanizing his British accent - plays Ben Campbell, a brilliant young mathematician with a hard-working, widowed mom, a pair of brainiac-geek buddies, and an offer to attend Harvard Medical School. The offer, though, comes with a catch: Poor Ben might actually have to pay for his education. And so, after some ethical hand-wringing, he joins forces with a group of fellow students who make a considerable fortune by counting cards in blackjack, and who are led - inevitably - by Kevin Spacey as a sardonic, snaky MIT professor. (I still think he's an acting genius and all, but Kevin Spacey's Kevin Spacey routine is getting really irritating.)
What follows, of course, is your standard, Hollywood-ized coming-of-age tale wherein Ben becomes hooked by the dangerous allure of All That Money (and, with Kate Bosworth, All That Sex), loses touch with his Deeper Values, and eventually gets the loot, the girl, Harvard, and revenge against his sneering nemesis. It's the American Dream!
It's also, unfortunately, a total crock. The movie's narrative predictability wouldn't be particularly annoying if 21 simply displayed some actual intelligence, but reel after reel here is almost pathologically stupid. We're told that the students' Vegas scam works, in part, because of how imperceptible their signals are, yet the actors' physical communiqués are so overt - and have been made so additionally overt by Luketic's obvious staging- that they might as well fire off starting pistols. Characters abruptly change motivations from scene to scene; Bosworth's smokin' cipher tells Ben they shouldn't mix business with pleasure, and takes him to bed five minutes after rebuffing him. (Their lovemaking scene is a riot, by the way; it's been ages since I've watched a camera discreetly pan away from a couple's passionate throes and land on the image of a spewing fountain.) The film's ridiculousness even extends to the casting - is it just me, or do 21's hot young cheaters eerily resemble the butt-kicking marionettes in Team America: World Police?
There's exactly one clever moment to be found in the whole of this overwrought, overbearing enterprise. Laurence Fishburne plays the head of a Vegas security outfit, and while monitoring his surveillance cameras, he's seen intently smoking a cigarette. I asked myself if people were still allowed to intently smoke cigarettes in Vegas surveillance stations, and I soon had my answer - Fishburne's employer enters and promptly tells him to extinguish it, which the actor grudgingly does while replying, "It's the end of an era." If 21 - which earned that figure times a million (and more) in its opening weekend - is what passes for smart, sexy cinematic entertainment these days, it most certainly is.
RUN FATBOY RUN
Run Fatboy Run, in which a chubby slacker enters a marathon to win back the heart of the pregnant woman he abandoned at the altar (!), was originally intended as a prototypical American slob comedy, and with someone like Adam Sandler or Ben Stiller, it might easily have been unbearable, overloaded as it with maudlin sentiment and de rigueur gross-outs - Exploding blisters! Naked middle-aged asses! - and characters even more senseless than those in 21. (Our hero's romantic rival goes from persnickety to monstrously hateful in record time.) Thank God, then, for the filmmakers' decision to cast that inspired British clown Simon Pegg in the lead, as his natural eccentricity humanizes even the basest jokes, and his repartee with fellow Brits Thandie Newton and Dylan Moran (plus the ever-excellent Hank Azaria) fools you into thinking the material is wittier than it really is. Led by director David Schwimmer, the actors make this hit-or-miss slapstick work (barely), but Run Fatboy Run is still a little depressing, because it finds really smart people expending considerable energies on an almost staggeringly dim-witted project.
Amidst the lame visual gags and fart jokes and ceaseless YouTube/MySpace/Facebook references in the dull (and shockingly passé) Spider-Man spoof Superhero Movie, there's a bit that made me laugh out loud, when the Aunt May stand-in asks the Mary Jane Watson stand-in for some help in the kitchen, and the airhead obliges by making tiny little knife cuts in a stalk of celery. Granted, it's not much of a joke. Then again, it's not much of a movie.
Kimberly Peirce's Stop-Loss is a sensationally enjoyable popular entertainment, and, as such, a rather unexpected artistic triumph, and so it's to the movie's great misfortune that it happens to be about the Iraq war, because almost nobody's going to bother seeing it. Not yet, at any rate.
We can spend all day hypothesizing about why audiences have mostly ignored the likes of In the Valley of Elah, Rendition, Lions for Lambs, and now Stop-Loss, which, this past weekend, made an unsurprisingly disappointing - or is it disappointingly unsurprising? - $4.5 million on nearly 1,300 screens. But I think public apathy toward the recent spate of similarly themed films can be explained pretty simply: Audiences know in advance that the movie in question isn't going to have a typically "satisfying" ending, either happy or sad, because the Iraq war doesn't have one yet, either.
Whatever their reasons, audiences will be missing out hugely if they choose to skip Stop-Loss, though I won't pretend that the movie is perfect. Co-written by Peirce and Mark Richard, the film - which concerns a trio of damaged young Texans newly returned from an overseas tour - too often slips into conventional melodrama, and features a few too many speeches that sound distractingly like Speeches. Stop-Loss is a bit messy.
It's also feverishly emotional and honest about human experience, and at times, almost unbearably gripping. Peirce prefaces the scenes in America with a terrifying, miraculously well-filmed ambush in the streets of Iraq, and the Texas passages are thick with the threat of eruptive violence; through clear directorial brushstrokes, Peirce makes us understand that the returning soldiers' suffering is too deep to contain, and will eventually manifest itself physically.
Yet Stop-Loss is anything but a brutal experience. With the amount of heartfelt, invigorating passion put in it by Peirce, Richard, and a stunning cast that finds Ryan Phillippe (as the solider whose military contract is unexpectedly extended), Abbie Cornish, Channing Tatum, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt doing the work of their careers - Tatum's work is particularly astonishing - there isn't a moment here that I wasn't engrossed by, and in retrospect, its failings seem inconsequential compared to its strengths. (The movie needs to be messy, because resentment and outrage are messy emotions.) It's probably too late for Stop-Loss to become any kind of box-office hit, but here's hoping it finds its audience on DVD, where it won't look much different from the evening news, and where it can be more duly appreciated, as it's always safer to be affected - and really, really angry - in the comfort of one's living room.