the take

Breaking Down the Movie ‘21’ Should Have Been

Courtesy of Sony Pictures

MIT blackjack caper 21 didn’t bust this weekend; the movie, despite mediocre reviews, somehow still brought in over $21 million ($23.7 million, to be exact). But let’s be frank: The movie stunk. It seems pretty clear, actually, how the producers of 21 managed to turn an exciting and massively popular book, Bringing Down the House, into a terrible movie: They changed the fascinating and true details into Hollywood banalities. Just to use one example, in the book the main character — an Asian guy — breaks up with his upstanding, parentally approved Asian fiancée to wine and dine a Denver Broncos cheerleader. What a socioeconomically and culturally fraught event! Let’s change that to a white guy falling in love with his white card-counting partner.

It’s particularly disappointing because the book itself reads like a bad screenplay, which has had us hoping for years that someone would bring out its potential on film.

Author Ben Mezrich did an incredible job getting his sources to reveal the details of a dangerous and complicated enterprise, but he doesn’t write dialogue or narrative very well. With the ingredients he provided, though, it could have gone in a lot of directions. It could have easily been a great 24-style thriller. It could have been a Wire-style hyperrealistic procedural, tracing strategy and teamwork on both sides of the MIT-casino war. And it could have been a Sopranos-type epic: include a lot of backstory, invent a memorable casino-boss villain, add a tragic, climactic killing … boom, we just won five Oscars.

You know … we’ve just suggested two HBO shows that provide models for a better telling of this story. And Mezrich’s book suggests that while card counters come and go, the whole enterprise is an arms race that will continue indefinitely. Sounds like we have a great premium-cable serial idea on our hands. See you all later — we’re going to go get ready for all the Denver Broncos cheerleaders who want to meet the executive producer of Untitled Blackjack Project. —Ben Mathis-Lilley

Breaking Down the Movie ‘21’ Should Have Been