The (Actual) Movie Review: '21'

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Like many people, I've grown increasingly annoyed with movie trailers that give away too much. So yesterday, as a thought experiment, I wrote a review of the blackjack flick 21 based solely on its overstuffed trailer. Having now seen 21 (the movie) and not just 21 (the trailer), I'd say my pre-assessment was pretty close. The film is dull, overlong, morally confused, and just not very much fun. There are a few small details I got wrong: The main character, Ben, only wears sunglasses in a couple of scenes, and the shot of a bag being thrown over his head, though spliced into the trailer in a way that suggested it was done by casino security, is actually borrowed from another scene.

But my main miscalculation was that 21 is much, much worse than I anticipated. From the trailer, it looked as though the film would have a little zip before it entered its melodramatic doldrums. In reality, it's slack and maudlin from the get-go. Ben is saddled with a pitiable backstory (father dead, mother works in a bar) and a pair of dorky, girl-phobic, robot-inventing friends--caricatures so lame that the nation's geeks should contemplate a class-action suit. I'd wondered what exactly he needed the $300,000 for, given that he's clearly already enrolled at MIT. The answer is that he's been accepted (early admission, no less) by Harvard Medical School, but won't be able to attend unless he can raise the cash. Tragically for him, 21 takes place in a universe where there is no such thing as financial aid or moneylending of any kind (seriously: the word "loan" is never uttered).

The mechanics of the card-counting scam are not "intricate," as I predicted, but rather numbingly simple. Unfortunately, the film seems unaware of this, offering tedious, repetitive lessons in the mundane details. I eventually lost count of how many times we were instructed that the word "sweet" was code for "16," but it must have been upwards of half-a-dozen. Also, someone might have suggested to director Robert Luketic that not every blackjack scene needed to be dramatized with a montage of flipping cards and accumulating chips set to loud, unimaginative techno pop.

I could easily go on--about the disappointing Kate Bosworth, the I-have-no-idea-who-my-character-is-supposed-to-be Laurence Fishburne, the fourth-rate dialogue, the comically inert romantic subplot--but there hardly seems any point. Suffice it to say that when, at the end, the film offers up an annoying remix of "You Can't Always Get What You Want," it comes across less as accompaniment than as self-critique. If my experiment demonstrated anything it's that, by making the movie it advertises redundant, sometimes the trailer-as-summary is a blessing in disguise.

This post originally appeared at TNR.com.

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Christopher Orr is a senior editor and the principal film critic at The Atlantic. He has written on movies for The New Republic, LA Weekly, Salon, and The New York Sun, and has worked as an editor for numerous publications.

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