Friday, March 28, 2008

Card games and marriage woes

Summary: "21" deals straight from the top of the deck, avoiding nearly all traces of subtlety. "Married Life" isn't such a good bet either. The movie accomplishes the improbable: It takes an irresistible cast and makes a resistible movie.

"21" comes out of the gate quickly, introducing its main character, a brilliant MIT student (Jim Sturgess) who needs money to continue his education at Harvard Medical School. Motive established. Financially pressed, Sturgess' Ben eventually joins a card-counting group run by one his professors (Kevin Spacey). Spacey's Mickey Rosa has devised a system to beat the house at blackjack. Those who've read Ben Mezrich's "Bringing Down the House''-- the book on which "21" is loosely based -- will tell you that the screenwriters have taken liberties with a story that transforms Ben from nerd to high-roller and supplies him a love interest in the person of MIT's most beautiful math whiz (Kate Bosworth). Director Robert Luketic, who gave us the abysmal "Monster-in-Law" and the better "Legally Blonde," provides the movie with a high-gloss veneer but can't cover numerous plot holes. On top of that, Luketic allows the game too go one too long. At slightly more than two hours, "21" occasionally lags and some of the Las Vegas scenes are as repetitious as they are glamorous. Of course, someone's trying to put a stop to the group's winning. Enter Laurence Fishburne as a detective who knows how to find those who count cards, an activity that's not illegal but may get you hurt. Fueled by youthful ambition and a giddy sense of fun, "21" scores about a 75 -- on a scale of one to 100.

Director Ira Sachs, who made a splash in the indie world with 2005's "Forty Shades of Blue," follows with "Married Life," a movie that deals with infidelity, lust and murder, but seldom sizzles. Sachs casts Chris Cooper as Harry Allen, a married businessman who has fallen for a younger woman (Rachel McAdams) during the years following World War II. Harry tells his best friend (Pierce Brosnan) about his problem. Brosnan's Richard, a debonair fellow and fabled womanizer, offers to help. Of course, he, too, falls for McAdams' Kay Nesbitt. Meanwhile, Harry thinks about murdering his wife (Patricia Clarkson) so that he can live happily ever after with the beautiful young woman who has re-charged his battery. Sachs throws the right ingredients into the pot, but can't bring them to a boil. The movie remains noteworthy mostly for Brosnan's performance as a double-dealer and Clarkson's always impeccable work.

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