Checking the Math of '21'

The No. 1 movie at the box office for the last two weekends has been 21, which depicts a group of Massachusetts Institute of Technology students who decide to try to relieve some tuition pressures by hitting the tables in Las Vegas. "Math guy" Keith Devlin talks about the card-counting system used in the movie.

'21'

Jim Sturgress in '21' i i

hide captionBen Campbell (Jim Sturgress) is an MIT student counting cards in Las Vegas to pay for his education in 21.

Peter Iovino/Columbia Pictures
Jim Sturgress in '21'

Ben Campbell (Jim Sturgress) is an MIT student counting cards in Las Vegas to pay for his education in 21.

Peter Iovino/Columbia Pictures
  • Director: Robert Luketic
  • Genre: Drama
  • Running Time: 123 minutes

Based loosely on a scheme concocted by MIT students to beat the blackjack odds in Vegas, this slick caper — a sort of collegiate Ocean's 16, with significantly less star power but only a touch less oomph — mostly comes up aces.

Jim Sturgess (Across the Universe) plays a boyishly brilliant math student who's importuned by fetching Kate Bosworth to join a clutch of card-counting brainiacs in a profitable little extracurricular sideline: Under the supervision of scenery-chewing Prof. Kevin Spacey, they fly to Vegas on weekends, identify hot tables and rake in the chips for a few days before heading back to classes on Monday.

Card-counting being frowned upon by the casinos, there are disguises and fake names involved, and casino enforcer Laurence Fishburn is on hand to lend a modicum of suspense. Presumably because director Robert Luketic knows that there's a limit to how exciting he'll be able to make the sight of cards being turned and chips being shoveled, much of 21 is taken up with the laying-out and explaining of a counting scheme that's going to go right over most moviegoers' heads.

Still, despite some credibility-stretching plot twists — and a romance with next to no chemistry — the film is probably sharp enough to keep its youngish target audience from wishing there were slot machines in the lobby to offer an escape.

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