The real-life story of a group of MIT math whiz kids who won millions playing blackjack gets the glossy Hollywood treatment here — a poor but worthy son of a single mother who needs money for med school tuition makes a better movie than a bunch of smart alecks who just want to make some big money.
The result may not be real, but it is solidly entertaining. If it were a hand at blackjack, call it an 18. Jim Sturgess (“The Other Boleyn Girl,” “Across the Universe”) is enormously appealing as Ben, the honest, shy, hard-working kid with the brain of a supercomputer who finds himself a high roller in one of the world’s most glamorous settings. Kevin Spacey, who also produced the film, is the charismatic but enigmatic professor with the system. Blackjack is the only game in Las Vegas that can be reliably beaten. The trick is card-counting, which requires memorizing both every single card that is played by any player and doing constant calculations according to a meticulous formula. The group improved their chances by working together, which required the use of various signals and disguises. But casino owners do not like card counters, and since they have the authority to ban any individual from playing, the real gamble for the MIT hotshots was winning enough to make it worthwhile but keeping a low enough profile to be able to come back.
The movie plays into the same fantasy that underlies hidden identity superhero sagas and transformed 98-pound weakling ads — the dream of easy money, power, and glamor, of having our inner worth recognized. And then there’s the fun of sticking it to the man, the man in this case being the guys on the other side of the gambling table. The framing story may be overly formulaic, but for the most part it keeps out of the way of the fun stuff — watching a shy kid get a great big kick out of, in the original title of the book that inspired this movie, “bringing down the house.”
Parents should know that this movie includes some violence. Characters get beaten up, and there is some scuffling and fighting. Characters smoke and drink. The film includes skimpy Las Vegas attire and partial female nudity, stealing, some strong language, sexual references and a non-explicit sexual situation.
Families who see this movie should talk about what meant when he said that “the world made itself easy for me?” Why did card counting give him more confidence than his other achievements? What did the characters mean by “real world” and what made it “real?” The real-life person who inspired the film is Chinese-American. Why did the book and the movie make him Caucasian?
Families who enjoy this film will also enjoy Ocean’s Eleven and the book about the real-life story behind this film.