MOVIE REVIEW- Count me out: '21' doesn't bring down the house

a still from this week's film"Is this a game of chance?"

"Not the way I play it, no."

Steve WarrenThat famous W.C. Fields exchange sums up 21, the latest proof that if you're going to set a movie in Las Vegas and put a number in the title, that title had better start with Ocean's.

Actually about half of 21 takes place in Boston, where Ben Campbell (Jim Sturgess of Across the Universe, a likable leading man) is a senior at M.I.T. hoping to go to Harvard Medical School. All he needs is $300,000 or a full scholarship. Working at a menswear store for $8 an hour should earn him enough by the time he reaches retirement age.

But Ben is smart– genius, maybe. He impresses even Professor Micky Rosa (Kevin Spacey) with knowledge that shows he's perfect for Micky's card-counting caper (the first classroom scene had me grabbing my dunce cap and heading for the corner before the complicated stuff even got started).

It seems Micky takes five students to Vegas every weekend to clean up at the blackjack tables. (The title refers to that game and Ben's age.) There's an opening on the team since "Jimmy got a job at Google," and while the idea doesn't appeal to Ben at first, one of the team members– Jill (Kate Bosworth)– does; and before you can say "Hit me," he's in.

You don't have to understand how the card-counting is done (Micky offers a hasty explanation) to follow the action. You only have to know it works, if one obeys Micky's rules, and it can be quite lucrative. It's not technically illegal, but losing casinos frown on it and hire people like security consultant Cole Williams (Laurence Fishburne) to discourage it– by any means necessary.

Some details don't make much sense. Although there's talk of changing identities and appearances, not much of that goes on as the students risk exposure by playing at the same tables in the same hotel (probably more for reasons of logistics and product placement than adhering to the facts of this true-ish story); and Ben usually joins Kianna (Liza Lapira) at her table, but they always pretend to be strangers. In reality, the dealers would get wise before Security does.

While not always believable, 21 is always fun for more than an hour, when things are going good. Ben develops a new, more extroverted Vegas persona, which alternates with his M.I.T. persona when he's back home. He quits his job and neglects his nerdy friends, Miles (Josh Gad) and Cam (Sam Golzari), with whom he's been working on a project for a science competition for more than a year. And yes, he finally scores with Jill.

Of course things have to go wrong– otherwise there'd be no drama, and it would be boring– but the fun doesn't have to go out of the movie the way it does here. Fisher (Jacob Pitts), the former top dog on the team, gets jealous of Ben's success. Micky gets nasty (and you know Spacey can be a bitch), and Cole gets violent. Twist after twist after twist ensues as credibility goes out the window. There's some excitement but too much unpleasantness.

21 was adapted from Ben Mezrich's book Bringing down the House, which already fictionalized events considerably. It took place in 1993 but has been updated to 2007 (Celine Dion's name on a marquee dates it). With Peter Steinfeld and Allan Loeb's screenplay deviating further from the facts, what's left is probably 99 44/100 percent pure Hollywood fantasy, which makes its dark side that much less excusable.

Director Robert Luketic (Monster-in-Law) keeps things moving and coated with the requisite Vegas glitz, but allows too hard a fall from the initial high, even if he brings it back up at the end.