Popcorn Panel: Don't Hit Him! He's Not Cheating

(As published in the National Post, April 4, 2008.)

This week's panel: This week's film: 21
Marni. So, let me get this straight: It's not illegal to count cards in Vegas, yet none of these characters goes to the police after being taken to a boiler room and beaten to a pulp for using strategy? I could suspend disbelief and see those interrogation scenes for what they really are -- plays on Bond-esque interrogation tactics ("Before I beat you, let me tell you my evil plan") -- was 21 not living off the line "Inspired by a true story." I'm not saying no one's ever been kneecapped in Vegas, but for a first-time offence? And by a loss-prevention specialist worried about losing his job?

Jeff. I agree. I really wanted to like this movie, since I think a lot about how to present mathematical ideas in entertaining ways, and I applaud anyone who tries. Occasionally the movie succeeded, like when we hear Ben's (Jim Sturgess) inner voice while he practises card counting. But there were so many absurd "add extra excitement here" scenes -- the "beaten to a pulp" stuff that Marni mentions, and sudden out-of-place gun shots, and ridiculous chase scenes through crowded casinos, and a weak romance, and gratuitous strip club images -- that, in the end, the film seemed more like a Hollywood cliche than anything else. It was as if the filmmakers didn't really think that the blackjack story was interesting, and were desperate to spice it up at the expense of the real story.

Alison. You're both right: 21 would have been a much better film if it hadn't been so heavily doused in Hollywood gloss. I still found it entertaining, but my favourite scenes were the ones that showed Ben at his nerdiest: adding up a customer's totals in his head, outsmarting his teacher, learning the nuts and bolts of blackjack. But for such a bright kid, surely he could have found a better place to hide his money!

And ridiculous as his character was, Lawrence Fishburne's loss-prevention specialist stole the film. I liked how he took off his good ring before punching anyone in the face. That's class.

Jeff. Interesting that your favourite parts were the "nerdiest" ones (though being a mathematician myself, I prefer to call them "mathematical" rather than "nerdy"!). After all, the numbers angle is what makes this story interesting and different, and it should have been taken much further. In real life, if you do a great job counting cards at blackjack, you might gain an advantage of a few percentage points over the house. You still have to play loads and loads of hands before you will show a clear profit. The movie could have showed Ben winning some, losing some and showing a profit only after hours of play. Instead, it left the impression that if you're smart enough (and cute enough?), you can win every blackjack hand you play. Sorry -- ain't gonna happen. (And speaking of ain't gonna happen, am I the only one who found some of the dialog incredibly forced? Do real people ever say things like "Some people grow up wanting to play for the Washington Redskins ... I grew up wanting to go to Harvard Medical School"?)

Marni. As an avid card player, I found it was an editing blooper that bugged me the most and, I think, revealed much about the filmmakers. In the scene where Ben meets the card-counting team, Mickey (Kevin Spacey) deals some cards. The cards are face up, cut to Spacey, cut back, they're face down; cut to Spacey, cut back, they're face up again. Anyone who cares about cards is instinctively drawn to them. Obsessive, I know, but you just need to know what those values are, even if they're props in a movie. As you both point out, the movie is best when it sticks to the math and gambling, and I suspect the reason director Robert Luketic didn't catch that gaffe is the same reason there wasn't enough gambling -- he doesn't care about the cards.

Jeff. Good blooper catch, Marni. The few times the movie did try to stick in mathematical tidbits (like the classroom scene where Kevin Spacey explains the infamous Monty Hall problem), the explanation came across as awkward and forced (and not quite correct), and left me wincing even while I really hoped it would succeed. Surely it's not impossible for a blockbuster movie to deal successfully with mathematical ideas -- the movie A Beautiful Mind comes to, um, mind -- but I guess it's not that easy either. At least, 21 doesn't make it seem easy!

Alison. Not only did the card playing lack precision, but the casino scenes were so long and repetitive. We get it. You're a high roller. Why would they keep going back to the same casino if they're trying to stay under the radar? And frankly, I was more than a little disappointed that the crew didn't have more disguises.

Unpopped Kernels: What card playing movies did you love?

Jeff. I remember mostly enjoying Rounders (starring Matt Damon), and quite liking the banter between James Gardner, Mel Gibson, and Jodie Foster in Mavericks, but as I recall *both* of those movies ended with the hero getting a Royal Flush on his last card to make a million -- so improbable, and so Hollywood! For pure fun, I love the scene from The Sting with a pretend-drunk Paul Newman using slight-of-hand to cheat at poker and thus provoke the bad guy (Robert Shaw) into making decisions he will later regret. And the wildly surprising ending of the classic A Big Hand for the Little Lady is enough to justify the entire movie and then some.

Marni. I may be the only one who enjoyed last year's Lucky You, but I don't care. I'm gonna stand up for it. For those who missed its two-week run in theatres, the film follows philandering poker pro Huck Cheever, living the Vegas lifestyle and falling in love with a naive young singer (Drew Barrymore). Hokey, yes. But it wasn't the story that appealed, it was the detail and accuracy that director Curtis Hanson brought to the film. I'd been in Vegas just a few months before and this film whisked me right back. Everything was dead on. It didn't paint a rosy picture of Vegas, it was claustrophobic and sad, which is how I found the real city. But that's what made the movie so interesting. Plus, Eric Bana's easy on the eyes, especially when he's playing a bad-boy poker player.

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