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Bringing Down the House:
The Inside Story of Six M.I.T. Students Who Took Vegas for Millions
by Ben Mezrich
(Discounted Paperback from Amazon)
. "21"

If this card game thriller is "inspired by a true story" as the tagline suggests why is it so full of holes? Why are some of its storytelling choices so morally challenged? Still, despite the flaws, it brings us the fun of high stakes action, beating the system, suckering Las Vegas casinos, sex, humor, genius and the good cause of an excellent education. A package you could make book on.

It all happens to Ben Campbell (Jim Sturgess) because he's a math genius and a student at that brain development campus known as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). It's a place that breeds scientists like an egg farm turns out chicks. Ben might be the brainiest of the lot when it comes to math and statistics. So, why is he having so much trouble qualifying for a scholarship at Harvard?

That problem is a matter of numbers, but not the kind he has control over. There are just so many applicants for one scholarship in a place whose tuition and related costs sum up to more than $300,000. The only way to win this scholarship is to stand out -- to be someone or do something that dazzles the committee.

Dazzling anybody doesn't look good for this good looking nerd who is part of a team trying for a prestigious award with his two co-nerds and best friends, all of whom realize how undazzling they are when they see someone like Jill Taylor, blond beauty extraordinaire. What's impressive about three guys panting from afar?

Yet, a solution to Ben's Harvard ambition appears to be in the cards... literally. In professor Micky Rosa's class (which Jill attends, as well) Ben casually answers a question in a way that reveals his understanding of statistical probability. He not only impresses Micky, he's invited to join his secret group he has organized to play blackjack, aka "21," and make lots of money. Even with Jill on the team, Ben shrugs it off, thinking it too great a disruption in his comfortable life. Even when Jill comes to the bookshop where he works, in order to arouse his greed instincts (but not, as yet, any others), he turns the idea down.

But this is just playing hard to get, because the practical side of his brain brings him to the conclusion that it may be the only way to pay for Harvard. It would be just for that, he tells himself and anyone else who'll listen, and as soon as he makes the $300,000 it would be his intention to quit playing.

After an intense course of training (perhaps too much of it since the film is overlong), Ben gets his feet wet in an actual trip to Vegas and proves his creds, making much money for the team. Micky is overjoyed and Jill is at least looking at him. His counting doesn't yet come to the attention of the casino management nor to their hired hand, loss preventer and enforcer Cole Williams (Laurence Fishburne) who has high stakes in keeping card counters off the premises.

After a string of visits, everything outstandingly good and terrifyingly bad happens. Ben grows comfortable as a high roller, adopting the swagger and the conceit. He becomes more the man for the girl of his dreams, though her committment to him is more a matter of patience than a slam dunk. All the while, he returns to his little student residence room with another roll of bills to add to his growing pile in a hidden place. But it all turns sour when he is caught by Cole and his partner, taken to a remote place, and beaten severely as a memorable impression that his counting, though not illegal, will not be tolerated by the casinos that pay Cole to prevent it. Never the subject for violence, the impression on Ben is suitably deep and character-modifying.

But, Ben never considers calling the police or consulting a lawyer. Of course we know he's scared, but why isn't it an immediate reaction? The holes in the story, and the troubling questions they arouse, are only beginning. In what may be the most egregious, Cole, the sadistic enforcer, is not only NOT brought to justice for his cruelty but he's rewarded.

The question of what each member of the card counting team should or should not do with their earnings (each one getting an equal share after Micky takes 50%) isn't addressed. So, how does a slick thinker like Ben not figure out a better place to hide his horde of $300,000 in cash than in his room? Director Robert Luketic and co-writers Peter Steinfeld and Allan Loeb never heard of an offshore or money market fund account?

Fortunately, there's enough going for this attractive movie, in the concept, the staging and the fine ensemble cast, to provide a reasonable diversion for those not bothered by lazy attention to credibility. The energy and excitement of winning in Vegas is captured, then overdone in an extended montage. Sturgess ("Across the Universe") conveys the genius naif capably with enough in the clean, good looks department to put a long-shot romance with the ravishing Bosworth into the realm of possibility. She is continuously stunning and keeps the sexual tension up just by being there, though her acting is solid. Stacey plays the good bad guy for all its worth, perhaps with a smidgen more intensity than needed in a few spots but always the elder pro on both sides of the fiction/reality line. The score, pulsing with energy in the right places features a Rolling Stones remix of "You Can't Always Get What You Want," to amplify the film's message. (See soundtrack link below).

In the end, loose moral messages and flaws in the plot don't add up to screenwriting and directing that draw an ace. But... beating the house with intellect will always be a winning hand.

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                                      ~~  Jules Brenner  

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