Nearly every work of fiction is at least loosely based on real-life people and experiences. The transparency of the lift from life to page or screen is dependent on a number of factors, chief among them the skill and the motive of the fictionalizer. And in this metafictional age of docu-dramas, historical fiction and enhanced memoirs, the line between real and not is becoming ever skinnier.
It’s hard to say exactly what director Robert Luketic and his pair of screenwriters had in mind when they made a movie inspired by the nonfiction book Bringing Down the House, but it’s clear that historical accuracy was not high on the list. The central character of Ben Mezrich’s book, about a small cadre of MIT students who make a killing on Las Vegas blackjack tables by counting cards, is a financially secure Asian-American; the central character of 21 is an impoverished Caucasian nerd. An optimist might suggest the change was made for artistic purposes, but a cynic would likely be far closer to the truth in suggesting the latter seems much easier to sell to middle America than the former.
But let’s give Luketic and company the benefit of the doubt on this one, and ignore the whiff of sneaky racism about their leading man. Artistic license gives them a long leash in arranging the parts of their story into compelling narrative, so ultimately it’s their version that deserves judging. And in that respect, they fail miserably. In fact, this movie is such a concoction of clichés and contrivances that the divorce between it and any conceivable real-life events couldn’t be more final.
The film gets out of the chute in fine style, with a nifty explanation of the ubiquitous gambler’s phrase “Winner, winner, chicken dinner” serving as an effective introduction into the gambling mindset. It’s paired with some awfully flashy graphics work depicting extreme close-ups of card and chip surfaces, slow-motion reveals of dealer and player hands, and a prominent rock soundtrack.
But the title credits can only last so long, and once the movie jumps into the story proper it starts spinning its wheels like a rear-wheel drive pickup on Snowbowl Road. Early on we see young Ben Campbell speaking with a representative of a Harvard Medical School scholarship, who tells the MIT student that he’s nobody special despite the 4.0 grade point average and impressive academic extracurriculars. What it’s really going to come down to, it appears, is the application essay: “Will you jump off the page, Ben? Will you dazzle me?” Yes, that’s a distinct odor of Risky Business you’re smelling.
And then it’s off to establish just how nerdy and impoverished our hero truly is. He walks into work at a haberdasher where his boss makes the public pronouncement that he has earned the title of assistant manager and the swanky $8-per-hour wage that comes with it. He’s seen studying his heart out in the library before his mom tells him he’s working too hard, darnit, and a young fella really should have a little fun on his 21st birthday. He replies to his mom with a reference to his dear departed father, and then he hooks up with his two nerdy friends for a drink at a bar, at which point their hopeless nerdiness is further confirmed by a series of desperate, longing glances at a group of pretty people clearly having more fun than they. And just to make sure we haven’t missed the point, one of the nerdy friends beats it into our skulls by saying, “Yeah, we suck.” Hey, these nerds are acutely self-aware!
So by the time Ben’s brilliance at MIT earns him an invitation onto a secret team of genius card-counters, it’s: a) no surprise that the team is anchored by the same unspeakably hot chick the nerds had coveted so recently in the gym; b) no surprise that the same girl can see the true stud lurking beneath Ben’s Ugly Nerdling exterior; and c) no surprise that the girl makes a seductive first move on Ben at a strip club, ’cause everybody knows the only way hot chicks can get any hotter is if they get hot looking at other hot chicks who happen to be naked.
And as Ben gets laid and gets a big ego, his ride on the hubris highway is secure. He gets kicked off the nerd science team, insults his nerdy friends by verbally confirming they are, well, nerds, and commits the cardinal sin of card-counters (which he had not only been repeatedly warned about, but also had the occasion to witness firsthand in one of his teammates) by letting his emotions at the table get the best of him, thereby losing all of his sponsor’s money and setting into motion the mechanism of his comeuppance and, of course, his ultimate redemption.
So by the time Ben rights all his wrongs and appears, penniless yet redeemed, at the office of his scholarship mentor, armed with the tale that will now surely separate him from the rest of the pathetically mundane field, I would have already written the conclusion in my head, had I not already seen the conclusion back in 1983. But like every other element of this movie, Ben’s closing line of “Did I dazzle you?” pales in comparison to that of his predecessor, who ended Risky Business with the immortal sentiment, “Sometimes, you just gotta say, ‘What the fuck.’”