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9 April 2008

...Nor Can You Always Get What You Want, Except When You Can

It had been a while (about a year, I think, for Babel) since I had been to the crappy, Nowheresville shopping centre that contains the non-arts cinema in town. I hadn't exactly missed the place - The Arts is a much nicer experience all round, not least because it does crêpes and class in equal measures (actually, it does crêpes better but they do have a French chef, so this isn't a bad thing). We used to avoid the place when possible, except when a film was on one of the big screens and even then, it was a pain because there is no assigned seating - like the time we went to see The Matrix Reloaded and were sitting in the back row, the aircon was broken and it was obscenely hot. The things we do for Keanu (who is currently ballsing up the remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still, I hear, and ruining Christmas to boot, given it's out two weeks before)...

So, what tempted me over to the multiplex? Well, 21, actually, which tells the "inspired by a true story - kind of, with a stretch of the imagination" of a bunch of MIT students, led by rogue maths professor, Kevin Spacey, who hit Vegas with their awesome Rain Man skills to become card counters who win big but have big oh-noes when bitter, soon-to-be-replaced-by-a-biometric-computer casino "loss preventer," Morpheus (I mean, Cole Williams) starts getting suspicious.

This is explains the ubiquity of recent blog posts explaining how the Monty Hall problem works; I first read about it on Predictably Irrational, where you can play along but the Tierney Lab blog on the NY Times blogs has covered it more extensively.

21
doesn't really have anything to do with this problem, other than the fact that it - like card-counting - is a way that maths can be fun and can be useful in the real world! Kevin Spacey is Micky Rosa, who is a most unrealistic maths professor given that a) he's pretty outgoing and funny, b) he relates the topics he is teaching to the real world and c) he talks about a quiz show in class. Spotting that Ben Campbell is one smart student, he gets Ben to play along in an imaginary round of the Monty Hall problem (three doors, one with a car behind, the other two with goats, the host knows where the car is. Contestant picks a door. Host opens one of the others to reveal a goat and then offers contestant the chance to switch - should she?), and of course Ben succeeds and explains why in suitably geschliegen language. Oh, and Ben also got 97% in his senior year "variable change" course at MIT, just in case you think Prof Spacey is just going on Ben's ability to do well in a quiz show!

If Micky Rosa isn't a very convincing maths professor, then Jim Sturgess doesn't portray a very convincing geek in Ben Campbell. He's too attractive, for a start (in a way reminiscent of Green Eyes, and his voice sounds the same as GE's too, although Sturgess is English so the accent must have been faked). He's also way too confident for someone who isn't supposed to be terribly self-confident - the actor appears far more comfortable later on when Ben comes out of his shell. When we meet Ben, he's chatting with some Harvard prof about his application to Harvard Med School and also for this really prestigious scholarship worth $300,000, for which 76 people apply for one place. Ben's very clever, we learn, but also very geeky and his only extra-curric involves building a self-driving car with his friends, Geekier and Geekiest. Harvard Prof tells him he has to dazzle, and as Ben has no dough for med school (and nor, apparently, does any form of financial aid appear to exist to allow gifted geeks like our hero to attend Harvard regardless of their financial situation - most odd), dazzling is the only solution.

But Ben has fun! He, G-er and G-est go out for beers on his 21st birthday with his Mom and they watch the frat boys socialise with real live girls. Mom tells Benji he's working too hard what with school and the self-driving car and his job at a tailor's shop in Cambridge. Ben's like, "you're right, Mom, but I gotta dazzle." Then, in the library one day, some arrogant, preppy bastard approaches him and commands that Ben follow him. Because he is all beta and geeky, he agrees. Sure enough Prepster leads him to a dark room where Prof Spacey is dealing some cards with Jill, the object of Ben's affections (and the "prettiest girl at MIT" - nice neg, Ben!), and some other kids. They want him to join their card-counting team and fly out to Vegas with them each weekend to make more money than he'd ever dreamed of (Hahvahd Med School! Oooh! And Hot Babe alert...overload....overload...aborting!). It's easy to count cards, they tell him, and he's clearly borderline autistic and so will be great at it. He considers but then says no.

Then, Hot Babe 9.467 shows up at the tailor's and tries to twist Ben's arm. She strokes his ego and tries to tempt him with her tales of the fun they all have and also by putting a tie on him; he's not convinced, although we know he will join in the end. HB9.467 is played by Kate Bosworth, who annoys me. Her voice was surprisingly deep in the film; I always assume that she sounds like a bimbo because I saw her on Jonathan Ross a couple of years back and she was a frickin' idiot and couldn't even answer the simplest of questions. Her IMDb bio suggests she's pretty smart but she's more famous for her heterochromia and her on-off relationship with Legolas. The heterochromia must cause problems when you're trying to dress up as different people in different casinos but no one seems to pick up on this.

So, welcome to the team, Ben, and off they fly to Vegas! It's a bit overwhelming at first. The students play as a team with the girls (whom Prof Spacey doesn't trust to be the Big Players) and an Asian guy sitting at tables, quietly counting and placing small bets, while Prepster and Ben are the Big Players, who pick up the agreed body language cues from the others to determine how well a particular table is doing. They also have a special code where certain words represent the numbers from one to whatever so that the non-big-players can indicate the Count to the Big Players (e.g. sweet = 16; "Oh, gosh, this drink's too sweet!").

So, they do well. They do great! Ben's a star and Prepster doesn't like it; he used to be the shit but now Ben's stealing his thunder and making him look bad. Also, Ben's still having problems kiss-closing HB9.467, although they're bonding well, but otherwise, things are good and when he returns to the dorm, he hides a big wodge of cash behind a loose panel in his ceiling. Also, Mom tries to give him a cheque for $68k but Ben feels guilty because he made $20k that weekend so lies and tells her he won The Only Scholarship/Financial Aid at HMS.

It's all a bit boring back at MIT and he can't be bothered with the self-driving car much, any more, though he and G-er and G-est go out to a bar that probably should have been the Miracle of Science. They start rating girls out of ten, to three decimal places and discuss whether or not they previously agreed to round up. Then in walks HB9.467 and she's surrounded by jocks; Ben surprises G-er and G-est by going right over to her and buying her a drink, clearing away the jocks. They bond over fathers on the T but then - oh noes! - Ben moves in for the kiss-close and gets burned big-time

Nor is Ben's new lifestyle all it's cracked up to be, of course, and the money soon starts to have an effect on Ben's wants, needs, actions and desires. Big money corrupts. Obviously, Prof Spacey isn't exactly the perfect, fatherly mentor, either, as Ben soon learns. Worse, Morpheus and his "loss prevention" colleagues, desperately trying to prove to casino bosses that they can't be replaced by computers that can scan biometric information, are closing in on the MIT men (and women). Ben is oblivious, though! He loves the disguises, the thrills, the gals...it's a fun life, if you can get it, but does HB9.467 really want the slick, confident, winner he has become or does she really want the self-conscious but incredibly clever geek who was actually pretty interesting and funny and sweet and whom she fell for? And has Ben lost his sense of what is important and what shouldn't be prioritised?

Well, 21 isn't the greatest film I've seen all year but it was pretty entertaining, nonetheless - it always catches me unawares when I go to the cinema and actually laugh; not out loud, in this case, but there were some good lines. The acting was OK and the script was decent enough. Visually, it was as glitzy and impressive as most other movies set in and around casinos, the snow in Hahvahd Yahd starkly contrasting with the happy punters frolicking in one of the hotel pools in Vegas. The soundtrack was quite good too, with You Can't Always Get What You Want playing out over the credits (although in the case of this film, it was more a case of "you can't always get what you want but only because you've lost sight of what you really want somewhere along the way").

I have found the whole co-evolving arms race between the card counters and the casino owners quite interesting since I saw a documentary on the MIT card counters on Horizon a few years ago, and of course, there's a lot more out there on the subject. Whether 21 did a good enough job of putting off poor students from trying the card-counting scheme is another matter - the casinos were more than happy to let the producers shoot the movie in their casinos (no such thing as bad publicity) and it was good to see the Hard Rock again, after its last appearance in The O.C.

Who wouldn't be tempted by all that money and all that glamour? HB9.467 liked the fact that in Vegas, you could be whoever you wanted to be (rather like Ryan in The O.C.) - the buzz must have been her motivation given that the clothes she wore back in Cambridge were really quite hideous compared to her Vegas attire, but that was probably just to emphasise the massive excitement and mystique of the double life. Of course, she's still pretty - not to mention more real - when she plays her MIT alter-ego. One other mystery was that the competition for which Ben, G-er and G-est were creating their self-driving car was called something like a "2 09" event. The only immediate things thrown up by Google was 2:09 Events, which can't be right, and a robot from Robocop, the ED-209, which is possible if too tenuous; perhaps this is just another maths joke I'm missing. Shame.

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