Movies offer the risky pleasure of transporting us someplace beyond our regular lives. Often they touch down in Las Vegas. It’s a neon backdrop for stories that are fun (Oceans 11), quirky and redemptive (The Cooler) or just silly (Honeymoon in Vegas), but always a little fantastic. Sometimes the fantasy falls flat (One from the Heart, Next). Last year, Lucky You looked for personal meaning at the gaming tables and came up largely empty handed. Now, another gambling drama hits the cineplex, 21. That’s our Smackdown: Which of these Las Vegas movies has the stronger story about holding the hot hand.
Ben Campbell (Jim Sturgess) has the sort of problem we’d all love to have: He’s a straight-A student at MIT with the grades to get into the Harvard Medical School, but not the money. What to do? What to do? In 21 the answer appears in the form of Ben’s math instructor, Mickey Rosa (Kevin Spacey). He induces Ben to join his “team” for extracurricular activity in Sin City. They count cards and use that skill to sweeten their odds at the blackjack tables. The group cleans up until jealousy, naked greed and security agent Cole Williams (Laurence Fishburne) catches up with the players’ elaborate disguises, signals and passwords. Along the way, Ben gains a girlfriend, Jill (Kate Bosworth), loses his stash and earns a measure of revenge. Robert Luketic directed 21 from a screenplay by Peter Steinfield and Allan Loeb based — very loosely based — on Ben Mezrich’s non-fiction
“Bringing Down The House.”
Lucky You gives us Huck Cheever (Eric Bana) who just doesn’t know when to hold ’em at the poker table. As a result, he’s often broke and routinely hocks his dead mother’s ring and steals money from his girlfriend, Billie (Drew Barrymore). Huck has trouble measuring up to his poker champion dad, L.C. Cheever (Robert Duvall). Along the way the movie serves up assorted oddball characters and almost-funny sight gags. Lucky You suggests Huck can settle his accounts and regain his girlfriend if he can rustle up enough scratch to buy his way into the World Poker Championship. Of course. Curtis Hanson directed the screenplay he co-wrote with Eric Roth.
Lucky You has a hole in the middle: Not enough story to make you care. Huck Cheever is overly self-absorbed and Eric Bana’s performance recedes into the background when he shares the screen with Duvall and Barrymore. Huck’s commitment problems are not very compelling. More interesting are the poker lingo and the card play. Lucky You never let the poker playing look dull.
21 has different issues. It captures the high-wattage hedonism almost completely absent from Lucky You, but it doesn’t feel very original. Haven’t we seen those overhead shots of money and chips and lights in other movies? Casting is not one of its problems. Sturgess and Bosworth interact believably, Laurence Fishburne is appropriately menacing and Kevin Spacey commands the screen so well it nearly papers over 21’s unappetizing message: Greed is good and more is better. Ben Campbell offers a tinny justification for his actions; his fellow card counters don’t even bother.
Does either movie tell us much about Las Vegas, human motivation or gambling? Do you sense a winning hand being played? Sure.
Lucky You must have chosen its title for the irony value. It lacks heart, drama and a strong central character. Having seen better work from Curtis Hanson (L.A. Confidential, 8 Mile), Lucky You is a disappointment.
21 tries harder with thin material. The result is flashier and superficially engaging, but it’s as satisfying as a $3.99 buffet on the Las Vegas strip: Filling but not very nourishing. The movie explains the mathematics of blackjack to keep the betting sequences interesting. Not a strong hand, but enough to declare a winner, “21.”