17 April 2008

Filmbook: BRINGING DOWN THE HOUSE and "21"

Due to circumstances beyond my control (ahem, MTA making a short jaunt to Brooklyn into a 2-hour ordeal) this did not appear yesterday. Sorry. If you saw the movie last night, I heartily apologize.

Even though I am still miffed about its apparent misrepresentation as nonfiction, I enjoyed the book BRINGING DOWN THE HOUSE. It's a zippy read, a page-turner in which just enough character development is doled out to keep the action going. More than that, it managed to make blackjack play-by-plays actually interesting and dynamic to a non-gambler like myself, who has played blackjack but never bet or won money on it. Author Ben Mezrich mimics the brash, arrogant tone of the MIT students who believed they could beat "the system" which allows casinos to make money, and if he is to be believed, they did beat it for a while.

The movie "21" takes a really good story, full of intrigue and high rolling and danger, and turns it into a below-average film. First, and most unfairly, this movie is very, very slow. The first half hour drags as the film tries to establish a context for the studious MIT protagonist, Ben (Kevin in the book, played by Jim Sturgess), to get involved with the "poker team" begun by Micky Rosa (Kevin Spacey), and establishing supporting characters who will never go to Vegas or matter that much at all.

Finally, around the 45-minute mark, we get to Sin City, but the pace only gets marginally faster. I had read several reviews faulting this movie for its "MTV-style" editing (fast cuts and loud music, essentially), and I wonder if maybe I'm just inured to the style because I heard the music but I feel like the action never picked up. The casino shots looked great -- remember, I love movies about Vegas -- but aside from a nifty behind-the-scenes chase, there was nothing I hadn't seen before.

The acting was pretty good across the board for something I felt was poorly directed and edited, and to some extent poorly written. Spacey is hardly in this movie, and when he is, he only has one cringe-inducing manic-man moment (at the beginning, in the classroom). The camera does a lot of lingering on Jim Sturgess' face, and he is quite likeable here (plus, it's a nice face!), but not enough to overcome the sheer inertia of the film.

The film's other major fault besides poor pacing was in not preserving the book's original ending, but in case you still want to see this movie (DON'T), I will stow my spoilery thoughts on that away in the comments.

Filmbook verdict: Read the book. Don't see the movie.

Poster for "21": iwatchstuff

1 comment:

Ellen said...

Spoiler, spoiler, spoilery spoiler!

OK, so in the end of BRINGING DOWN THE HOUSE, the character Kevin basically decides to walk away from playing due to a combination of busts (i.e. casinos recognizing his face and asking him to leave) and scares (someone breaking into his apartment to leave him a message -- a scene replicated in the movie, although in the book they only trash his place and in the movie all his money is stolen).

Instead "21" scraps this plan to wrap up the whole thing in a nice big bow. The team convinces Micky Rosa to play for one last big score, even though he's been caught card counting in Vegas before. "Coincidentally," a security guard (Laurence Fishburne) who finds his job threatened by facial scanners and other technology used to catch cheaters is looking for Micky as his last big catch before retirement. This guard character makes a lot of appearances in the movie, most of which are quite boring. In the end, he's the one chasing Ben and his buddies through the casino, but he agrees to let them go without charges IF they surrender Micky and the money they're carrying. The guard gets his man, the kids go back to their real lives, and apparently the law has no meaning.

This wouldn't have been so frustrating but for the "frame story" also layered onto this movie, in which it is revealed at the end that the whole movie is a story Ben is telling an admissions officer at Harvard Medical School in order to get a scholarship. He's trying to make himself "dazzle" so he can get a full ride -- the full ride he was going to pay for with his blackjack money, before it was stolen -- but really, WHO DOES THAT? Basically the last scene is Ben leaving the awe-stricken admissions officer, and the music and cues implying that this dumbass technique actually worked. Oh, Hollywood, why?