A lot or a little?
The parents' guide to what's in this movie.
What parents need to know
Parents need to know that 21 is a breezy, fact-based drama about college students who use their math skills to count cards in Las Vegas; it may appeal to teens thanks to stars like Jim Sturgess (of Across the Universe) and Kate Bosworth. That said, the subject matter is pretty serious, and there are some fairly violent scenes -- a security officer punches counters with a closed, ring-bedecked fist -- as well as lots of smoking, drinking, swearing, and, of course, gambling. The students also meet up post-gambling at a strip club, and there are plenty of cleavage shots and some passionate clinches.
- Parents say
- Kids say
What's the story?
MIT senior Ben Campbell (Jim Sturgess) has worked hard all his life to achieve one goal: attend Harvard Medical School. Getting in isn't the problem -- he's already been accepted -- but paying for it is. His only chance is a full-ride scholarship, but nothing distinguishes him from most of the applicants. He's smart and hardworking, but he has no life experience, having sacrificed his social life for school. No wonder the lure of Vegas becomes too much for him to resist -- what's not to like about the chance to make tons of money, live a different life, and land a pretty classmate, Jill (Kate Bosworth)? Jill is part of a blackjack "team" led by professor Micky Rosa (Kevin Spacey), a math whiz who trains his students in the fine art of card-counting and flies them to Sin City for money-making weekends. Technically, it's not a crime -- but Vegas doesn't celebrate winners, particularly if they're geniuses who find a way to take the house for all it's worth. Soon Ben discovers he's involved in a dizzying game where the stakes -- Harvard, graduation, his future -- are much too high.
Is it any good?
Slick, stylish, and mostly seductive, 21 -- based on Ben Mezrich's nonfiction book Bringing Down the House about MIT student Jeff Ma -- is a treat despite some clunky dialogue and clichéd setups. Just one example: On his 21st birthday, Ben's mother beseeches him to have fun; "You only turn 21 once," she says. Cut to the fork in the road that promises excitement. Later, Jill, in an effort to persuade Ben to join the team, tells him, "You were born for this." And so on.
But true talent masks many ills -- and Sturgess has plenty. Cool and vulnerable in Across the Universe and aptly English in The Other Boleyn Girl, he's credibly earnest and awkward here, but not so much that his Vegas transformations are unbelievable. Spacey, who co-produced the film, gives viewers more of his sneering, snide shtick, but it's effective here. His mentees are a likable bunch -- young, too-clever, and eager to please. And Vegas? The cheese is (mostly gone). Rarely has it looked this fun.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about Ben's decision to gamble as a means to an end. Was he right? Is it ever OK to bend the rules to accomplish something?
Since it's not technically illegal to count cards, why is it so frowned upon? Do you think it's cheating or just a clever use of math skills? Is it easier to justify something like card counting if you're taking money away from a casino instead of a person?
Does the movie glamorize Las Vegas and gambling? What do you think casinos are like in real life?
- In theaters: March 27, 2008
- On DVD or streaming: July 21, 2008
- Cast: Jim Sturgess, Kate Bosworth, Kevin Spacey
- Director: Robert Luketic
- Studio: Columbia Tristar
- Genre: Drama
- Topics: STEM
- Run time: 123 minutes
- MPAA rating: PG-13
- MPAA explanation: some violence, and sexual content including partial nudity.
- Last updated: September 20, 2019
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