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The Movie 21: The Ultimate Scholarship Essay?

May 23, 2008
Have college money troubles, or just need money in general? You might like the movie 21. Big money betting, playing cards, spending time in casinos in Las Vegas - what's not to like?

Blackjack Versus College
21 stars Kevin Spacey as a slick, conniving college professor Micky Rosa who can beat the casinos at their own game: Blackjack. He recruits costar Jim Sturgess, who plays a white and nerdy student at MIT named Ben Campbell. Ben can do serious math on the fly, gets all A's at MIT, and plans to go to Harvard Medical School. But Ben needs money. He works at a men's clothing store for $8 an hour, and can't pay for med school.

To get a jump on his graduate school money needs, Ben wants to win the prestigious Robinson Scholarship, a large award big enough to pay for all of Harvard Med, or about $300,000. Big money. Unfortunately, he may not have a chance against his competition for the scholarship: last year, the scholarship went to an immigrant with one leg. Worried, he starts looking for other ways to make money.

Professor Rosa and a cute MIT student and blackjack spotter Jill Taylor, played by Kate Bosworth, pull Ben onto the team for his stellar math skills. He starts spending every spare moment learning the ways of the blackjack table.

What Happens in Vegas
Prof Rosa and Jill, along with the rest of the team, drill Ben on the finer points of card counting to beat the house in Blackjack. They show him how the team works to win at the tables. When to split your hand, when to leave, when the deck is hot and so on. They also play around with a few disguises and personalities, to keep the casino guessing and to keep winning. I enjoyed watching the team work, with signals, code, shuffles and all. In real life, this would take many weeks, and then the casinos carefully watch for it at their own pits on camera.

If a casino catches them card counting, the penalty could be severe. You can probably find easier ways to get money for college than staring at the fist of a security manager named Cole, played by Laurence Fishburn. Cole doesn't tolerate counting at his tables, while at the same time losing customers to new security measures at casinos across town. Ben finds out the hard way that casinos like to keep their money.

The plot moves around, Boston to Las Vegas, in school to the Blackjack pits. You'll find a few twists, and you'll see the team live it up in Vegas. Ben and Jill have a few moments together, for a little love story.

Ben also alienates a couple of his brainy friends during the movie, and ruins some of their plans for another project. He has to deal with the ethics - the lies - about having lots of money around, flying to Las Vegas for the weekend constantly, and keeping secrets about his other group of friends.

As he gambles on the team and blackjack to pay for med school, he finds his life in a spiral. His life starts to fall apart, and the fun gives way to pressure. He has to stop it before he loses control completely, and can't reclaim his future or the present.

The movie has a fun, Hollywood finish. The specifics I'll leave for you to see in the movie itself. 21 entertained, and I enjoyed it. It has a few typical Las Vegas show scenes inappropriate for younger viewers.

Remember, this is a movie. You'll find a few good twists and some nonlinear story telling. I don't recommend earning money for college like this, but the scholarship essay adds to the ending. Go see it.
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