'21' gives a typical Hollywood payoff, but it doesn't fit

In one of the old Fields comedies, W.C. tries to persuade super-square Franklin Pangborn to play poker.

"But that would be gambling," Pangborn protests.

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"Not the way I play it," Fields replies.

Fields didn't go to MIT, but he knew that if you could eliminate risk from a game of chance, you could make a killing.

If he had gone to MIT in the 1990s, he might have been a character in "21," a Hollywood movie loosely based on a real group of math whiz kids who made Vegas their sucker, for a time. (It's based on a book, "Bringing Down the House," which also yielded a good cable documentary.)

"21" stars Kevin Spacey as a professor who recruits promising students to join his group of card-counting blackjack strategists.

The story centers on Ben (Jim Sturgess), pursued by the team because he has the right mix of numerical genius and tactical nerve - he's smart enough to know when to double down, poised enough to maintain the distinction between advanced math and mere gambling.

For Ben, a blue-collar scholarship kid who makes meal money by working as a retail clerk, his new, booze-girls-and-bucks life is predictably seductive. The guy who's gotten by through working harder is suddenly the guy who can cut corners. The professor gets him excused from other classes, he gets the prettiest girl in school (Kate Boswell), and he's a king in Vegas.

At this juncture, "21" seems to shape up as a timely movie for our bubble-plagued age, a cautionary tale about living in times that seem too good to be true, under the illusion that risk has magically disappeared.

The starry-eyed Ben is sitting on the outer edge of his own personal bubble, and you can feel it ready to burst, particularly when director Robert Luketic cuts to a shot of Laurence Fishburne, the brass-knuckled casino heavy looking to bust the gang of card-counters.

But "21" turns out to be emblematic of the times for other, more regrettable reasons. It gravitates toward the idea that the public will flock to any movie ("National Treasure: Book of Secrets"), no matter how dreadful, so long as it ends with a jackpot payoff.

"21" is a particularly disappointing example, since at times it seems to understand that Ben's transformation from best and brightest to self-interested card shark represents moral decline.

These kids, after all, are the most intellectually gifted young people in the country, the world. They could be fighting cancer or AIDS or autism. (Ben is angling for Harvard med before Vegas sidetracks him.)

Or writing code.

The real MIT card-counters disbanded in part because some team members realized the hundreds of thousands they made pulling debilitating all-nighters in Vegas was chump change compared to the millions/billions they could make in Silicon Valley.

"21," though, remains devoted to the idea that beating Vegas is man's highest purpose - Luketic has said his goal was to capture the Vegas "lifestyle."

He completely drops a story line that has Ben estranged from two nerdy pals who are trying to win a science prize by designing a gyro-powered car.

The movie, astonishingly, ends with the two geeks in hipster garb at the blackjack table, recruited to the dark side by the lure of easy money the movie half-heartedly condemns, then endorses.

If this is our plan for deploying intellectual capital in our emerging competition with Asia, I'm doubling down on China.

Incidentally, the real MVP of the MIT team was not your central-casting white guy. His name is Jeff Ma, and he now heads an online gambling operation. He works, in other words, for the house - the surest way to eliminate risk. *

Produced by Michael De Luca, Dana Brunetti, Kevin Spacey, directed by Robert Luketic, written by Peter Steinfeld, Allan Loeb, distributed by Sony Pictures.