I had a great time at 21. The plot was enjoyable, the college life undercurrents were fun, and you can even find a love story in it. The use of a scholarship essay made my day, since I usually write about student loans, scholarships, and grants - icing on the cake.
The Basics: Who and What
21 stars Jim Sturgess as MIT student Ben Campbell, a math whiz who plans to go to Harvard Medical School. The movie takes place in his senior year at MIT. He has all A's, and works at a men's clothing store for $8 an hour. Why a math genius wants to be a doctor, I don't know, except that doctors make a pretty penny, and he knows that.
Ben applies for the prestigious Robinson Scholarship, which will pay all of his expenses for Harvard, a total of about $300,000. Serious cash. While discussing his qualifications with a representative of the scholarship, Ben learns what he is up against. The scholarship went to a one legged immigrant last year. He worries he doesn't have what it takes, and starts looking for other ways to make money.
At this point, we meet Kevin Spacey as slick Professor Micky Rosa and Kate Bosworth as cute MIT student and blackjack spotter Jill Taylor. With help from others on the team, they recruit Ben, promising him lots of money.
Counting Cards Instead of a Scholarship
Ben leans the simple art of card counting, and the team rules. The movie actually teaches fairly well how to count cards - not that I gamble. Truth is, you have to track the shuffles, use multiple spotters counting multiple tables to find a hot deck and so on. It can take months to actually go well at this, and the casinos watch for it in real life. Not the best way to make money for college, but appealing for some people, I'm sure.
I won't ruin the story for you - take a peek, maybe you'll like it. 21 entertained me, which is all I ask of a good movie. The card counting college team lives it up while they are in Vegas. Ben and Jill do find some time to have a relationship. Aaaah, isn't that sweet...
21 is based on Bringing Down The House, by Ben Mezrich about an MIT blackjack team in 1993, but the movie is modernized. I saw the summary version on the Discovery Channel (I think) about 4 years ago. They did win large amounts of money, but probably not as much as in the movie. And they did get shut down, by winning too much at too many casinos.
Card counting, as far as I know, is not illegal, just against casino rules. The real life team had to shut down because all the casinos knew them - and they did play many casinos, not just one.
Remember, this is a movie. You'll find a few good twists and some nonlinear storytelling. I don't recommend earning money for college like this, but the scholarship essay adds to the ending. Go see it.