Saturday, August 16, 2008

21 -- the allure of high rolling riches

21 is a simple but "based-on-true-story" tale of a student who needs funds to pay for college. But it is also a contrast between two cities: Boston and Las Vegas. Whereas one represents education and culture, the pinnacles of a youth well spent, the other represents seduction and sin, the depths of debauchery and a youth, even life, wasted.

Ben Campbell (Jim Sturgess the English star of Across the Universe now trying on an American accent) is a gifted student, perhaps even a genius. An MIT student with a 4.0 GPA, he is accepted to the prestigious Harvard Medical School. The only problem is it costs $300,000 and he does not have this kind of money. His main job, while a student, brings in a whopping $8 per hour. He has set his hopes on winning the full ride scholarship. He has the academic credentials. But in his interview, it is clear he does not have the life experience to dazzle the professor and hence separate himself from the other 70+ applicants. His last hope is dashed. He has no way to pay for medical school. Ben is the only student in class who can answer the questions posed by math prof Mickey Rosa (Kevin Spacey), he captures his attention. Later, he is invited to join a small group of students being primed by Rosa to work a system for counting cards for blackjack. At first he refuses; he doesn't want to compromise his job or studies, or even his participation on the robot competition with his two nerdy friends. But a visit from Jill (Kate Bosworth), the hot student he desires from afar, changes his mind.

Ben, of course, is a natural. He picks up the counting method, the signals, and the buzzwords quickly. He is a natural leader, too, and is given the spot as high hitter, the one who comes to the table when signaled and starts betting large amounts. And so the Vegas trips begin. first Ben, with his new identity, does well but remains the same shy scholarly student that he was at first. He still wants to stay friends with his nerdy buddies. But as these trips continue, he changes. He is seduced by the large amounts of money they are winning, the glitz of the neon, the grand suites they occupy, and the recognition he is given by the hotel staff. Slowly he withdraws from his former friends. He lies to his mother. He becomes a different person, an uncaring, high roller who lives for the thrill of the game, and enjoys the trappings of this success.

But the success of this cabal is only as good as the counting of cards. When Ben falls prey to playing with emotions, not the system, he loses and loses big. At this point, Rosa's true motivations emerge: "You are only ever as good to me as the money you make!" This is not about the team, it is about the money they bring to him. The nasty underbelly of the beast is exposed. And he has ways to destroy them and their dreams. Ben and his fellow students decide to work without Rosa, he gives them away to casino enforcer Cole Williams (Laurence Fishburne), a shady character from Rosa's past. When Ben is taken for a talk with Williams, the talk involves fists and knuckle-rings. It is a wake-up call.

As Ben loses everything, his fortune, friends, and future, he is forced to take drastic action. With nothing left to lose, he plans a way to win it all back. The final act is a formulaic con that plays out in a fun fashion. wastes its talent. The signals used in the casinos are so obvious a blind-man could spot them a mile away. The system, explained once, is repeated time and time again unnecessarily, as though the director expects us to forget what is going on. And the characters are too superficial, almost caricatures. The screenplay lacks subtlety; with more depth of character it would have been interesting and compelling.

As ordinary as 21 is, it raises some intriguing ethical issues. Is it OK to lie to your family, your parents, to "protect" them? Sometimes, to lie is to save face. If the truth is too hard to tell, or cannot be told, is this a sign that the activity is ethically wrong? In lying to a parent or family member, this will undoubtedly have a domino-effect. It will hinder future relational growth, since relationships are based on honesty and transparency. It will lead to further lying to hide the truth that cannot be told.

Can we expose ourselves to seductive activities without being seduced by them ourselves? It may be possible but it is very difficult. As one of the characters says, "You know what I like most about Las Vegas? You can be whoever you want to be." Vegas allows people to pretend to be something that they're not, but in doing so they are actually becoming those people. The masks we wear conform our faces so that they eventually will become those masks.

Another ethical issue is that of abandoning one's friends when a "better" group comes along. This is manipulative at heart. True friendships are based on care and concern, a desire to see our friends reach their best. It is not self-serving, as though we use the friendship until a better one for us comes along. 21 causes us to reflect on our own friendships and our internal motivations. How do we know our true friends? Who are we true friends to? How do we treat our friends?

Perhaps the biggest issue 21 raises is how close to the limits we choose to go. If counting cards is not illegal, it is certainly close to the boundaries. The fact that the enforcer will beat a card-counter to a pulp shows how the casinos view this activity. Is it wise to live life close to the allowed boundaries, always challenging the authorities but never quite crossing the line? 21 never really answers this question and this void subverts the narrative.

So, should we root for Ben and his team? We do, only because we see the inherent wickedness in their mentor. But what if Rosa was better, decent at heart? Where would our allegiances lie then? Surely perceptions are as important as reality. And if the perceptions of others is that when we live close to the limits we are actually over the line, it is better to move away, to alter the reality so as to alter their perceptions. As followers of the Lord of the Universe, we must live so as to cause no issues for others. If that means avoiding living close to the limits, then perhaps we need to reevaluate the lifestyles we have chosen.

21 is for 17 -- the birthday number for my son today! Happy birthday David.

Copyright ©2008, Martin Baggs

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