While other teens were easing their way through high school, Ben Campbell was studying. When fellow MIT students were hitting the keggers, he was hitting the top of his class. Ben is boyishly cute, nerdishly awkward and nothing short of a math/science genius. And his one big goal in life is to make it to Harvard Medical School. But he can't avoid the fact that all the talent and sacrificial hard work in the world won't overcome an empty bank account. Especially in light of the lauded school's $300,000 tuition.
Ben hopes that he and his friends Miles and Cam might win a coveted first prize in an inventor's competition—which would open the door to a scholarship. But even that seems to be a long shot.
Then Micky Rosa, one of Ben's MIT professors, takes note of the unassuming young man's brilliance with numbers and invites him to join a little club. But this isn't your typical study group. These students and their crafty prof are boning up on ways to use their math skills to outfox the wolves at the Las Vegas blackjack tables.
Reluctant at first, Ben is soon convinced that the system is flawless and that this could be his ticket to raising the money he needs. Besides, there's an important hole card—Jill Taylor is part of the group and Ben has never been this close to a girl so beautiful. And that's a sweat-inducing incentive he just can't argue with.
So it's off to gamble away the weekends in Las Vegas. But as the money mounts, an appreciation for the glamorous life grows. Greed sets in. And everything changes.
At the heart of things, Ben is a nice guy who has worked diligently to make good. He and his widowed mom are very close, and she is willing to give him every penny she has to help him meet his tuition needs. (He refuses to take her money.) She tells her son, "Your father would be so proud of you." Later, Ben admits, "I lied to my mother, but I confessed my lie and she still loves me."
As Ben gets tied up with his weekend trips, he begins to lose touch with his friends Miles and Cam. The two approach Ben and offer to help him if he's in trouble. Cam even volunteers to go to AA meetings with him if it's a drug problem.
The film uses a story that focuses on the world of gambling to point out quite a few things wrong with gambling. More on that later.
One of the MIT students, Choi, tells Ben that they go to gamble in Vegas on "weekends and Christian holidays." Choi also has a habit of stealing everything he can get his hands on in the hotel suites. When he steals a Bible, Prof. Rosa tells him, "You steal the Bible and you go to hell!" Choi retorts, "Like I'm not going already."
The MIT gamblers regroup on several occasions in a strip club. While never fully nude, the club's waitresses and pole dancers hide little. At least one wears only pasties and a g-string, and several are seen from a number of sexually salacious angles. Waitresses give men lap dances. And the camera relishes close-ups of patrons slipping money and poker chips into the girls' barely there bras and panties. The hotel pools also feature scores of women wearing revealing bikinis.
Ben and his nerdy friends are used to ogling pretty girls from a distance at a local bar. During one such foray, two girls dance together and kiss (to whooping cheers from the male patrons). The friends also carry their slack-jawed drooling over to the school gym, and they make jokes about masturbation.
Ben and Jill push past flirtation and end up kissing passionately and stripping each other's clothes off. (We see Jill in bra and skirt, and then the two "pose" in a naked but strategically covered embrace.)
A Harvard administrator has a statuette of a reclining nude that we see from the rear. Ben stuffs large wads of cash into his underwear. Even the average non-pool, non-strip club female attire in Las Vegas (including Jill's) is cleavage-baring and form-fitting.
William Cole is the surveillance chief and strong arm for several casinos. When he catches crooked gamblers—including the card-counting Ben—he unleashes punishing blows that result in bloodied faces, blackened eyes and broken cartilage. Cole tells Ben, "I will break your cheek bone with a small hammer, and then I will kill you."
In retaliation for a slight offense, a man tosses a student around and then pulls a gun and fires it into the ceiling.
Drug and Alcohol Content
Beer, wine, mixed drinks and champagne all flow freely in Las Vegas hotel suites and casinos. (And about two-thirds of the movie takes place in them.) Ben, Miles and Cam drink beer at the bar. Among other activities, most of the patrons in the strip club are shown drinking beer and alcohol. Guests drink at an MIT alumni dinner. One of the MIT gamblers gets drunk.
A number of characters smoke cigarettes and cigars, including Rosa and Jill.
Other Negative Elements
Prof. Rosa makes veiled threats to his students to keep them in line. He makes good on one, causing a student's academic ruin. Rosa also finagles an A for Ben in a fellow teacher's class so that Ben can go gamble.
Ben glorifies a decadent gambling lifestyle by saying, "In Boston we had a secret—in Vegas we had a life." And the lasting impression of the film could have been more cautionary. As it is, Ben and his friends still seem to be on top of the world as it wraps, stalking through a casino and grinning like Cheshire cats.
"Winner, winner, chicken dinner!" At the beginning of 21, Ben gives us a brief history of this celebratory phrase and an idea of how exciting it is to hear it ring out at a Las Vegas gaming table. He could have gone on to detail the biblical context of "The love of money is the root of all evil" as well, because both expressions strike at the heart of this film.
The story is based on Bringing Down the House, Ben Mezrich's bestselling account of real-life MIT students who took the Vegas blackjack tables for millions in the 1990s. It's an involving tale about the risks (and rewards) of deception, unbridled greed and promise of easy cash lining the Vegas strip. It draws us in with its handsome, likable cast and leaves us with a somewhat satisfying, if predictable, conclusion.
But like many flicks that take characters through a progression of temptation, sin, remorse and a bit of conscience, it shows us a lot of temptation and sin (inherent in a full deck of Vegas violence, booze and near-naked strippers) before it gets around to the momentary remorse and conscience part.
And in this case, that momentary remorse and conscience may be too little too late for another reason: It was Jeff Ma who led the MIT card-counting team. And though he appears in the film, he's convinced that 21 is "great for Vegas. It perpetuates the myth that blackjack is beatable."