Netflix doesn’t only remove streaming videos, sometimes it adds them.
The movie 21 came out in 2008. It was based on the book* Bringing Down the House, a book published in 2003. The title Bringing Down the House was nixed for the movie so as not to confuse the new film with the Queen Latifa movie of the same name.
As a rule, I tend to go for the math-genius genre of films. I also like myself a good docudrama. So when this movie came out, I figured it was going to be a must-see. But then I started reading some of the reviews, which were mediocre to poor. I’ve long forgotten the critique that swayed me, but I still remember that it didn’t seem like this was a movie that would be worth going out of my way to see.
Yet when it showed up as a “newly added” feature on Netflix, I was drawn back in.
The criticism on release seemed to center on, mostly, two issues. The first, really, was an extension of the criticism of the book. The book is subtitled, The Inside Story of Six MIT Students Who Took Vegas for Millions. The implication and marketing pitch is that it is the true story of the “MIT Blackjack Club,” the actual college students from MIT (and other Boston schools) that engaged in a systematic card-counting scheme in the 80s and 90s. In fact, the book was revealed to be rather loosely based on reality- a wild tale, although inspired by the stories of a real-life person.
The reality is interesting enough on its own, although in a different sort of way. The MIT Blackjack Team was decades-old at the time the events of the book** take place. One description (perhaps from the book) explains that a Blackjack Club was originally founded as a way to learn and study the statistics of blackjack, and it grew into the money making trips as the group learned the game. Another version, from Wikipedia but without a citation, reverses the causality. It explains that in 1980, a group of six students taught themselves card-counting and then made some money on a spring-break trip to Atlantic City. Subsequently, they offered a course to MIT students on blackjack, which expanded the interest at MIT and also attracted the attention of outside bank-rollers. In either case, the decade from 1980-1990 saw the club grow to a point where the team approach, as shown in the film and in the book, became an organized and successful system. Also during this time, various financial entities were formed to back the players with initial capital and to distribute the resulting profits.
Starting in 1992, a new partnership called Strategic Investments was formed to back the then-current iteration of the blackjack team. The partnership raised over a million dollars, which was significantly more capital than had been employed in previous years. They perfected the multi-player approach highlighted in the film and grew the team to more than 80 players located around the country. It was into this iteration of the “MIT Team” that the real student Jeff Ma, renamed Kevin Lewis for the book and Ben Campbell for the movie, became involved with the system.
The book narrows this larger story to make it more personal. The MIT team is a group of six students and combines several older “advisors” and “investors” into composite-character Micky Rosa. Intrigue, violence, and betrayal is thrown into the mix to spice it up. One of Rosa’s real-life counterparts told the Boston Globe, “I don’t even know if you want to call the things in there exaggerations, because they’re so exaggerated they’re basically untrue.”
Under the spotlight that accompanied the turning of the book into a movie, the fictionalization (of what was sold as a true story) put a bad taste in the mouths of many critics. That book scandal naturally spread to the reviews of the movie itself. It didn’t help that the movie doubled down on its artistic license. A nerdy-boy-gets-the-beautiful-girl story is placed front and center. Micky Rosa is turned from a outside financier into an influential MIT Professor, moving his involvement from an ethical gray area into clear malfeasance if not criminality. Ben Campbell is now an impoverished Jamaica Plains (at least it wasn’t Southie) local who is just trying to get a shot at what his more privileged peers take for granted. Will he be corrupted, or will his J.P. working-class soul steer him through?
Which leads us to the second criticism. Racism!
If its not immediately apparent from the name, Jeff Ma was not a Scots-Irish working-class Boston native. In fact it might be obvious to anyone that a random selection of math wizards from MIT would not produce a particularly white sample. Not only was the production criticized for “white washing” the cast, but Ma himself came under attack for not insisting that he be portrayed as Asia. He downplayed the supposed slight, saying that the most important thing was he be portrayed by a talented actor. He also made an interesting observation that, to him as a Chinese-American, being portrayed by a Japanese or Korean actor, just so his character “looked Asian,” would have been more insulting than being portrayed by a white man.
An interesting angle on this particular controversy. The MIT blackjack team, and particularly the “big players” (the member of the team who makes the big bets and earns the money for the system) were mostly chosen to be Asian or Arab. This wasn’t a question of math skills, but a question of fitting the racial stereotypes of the casinos. A young, white male betting big at a casino would come under immediate scrutiny. However, a son of a wealthy Chinese or Arab national coming into the casino and betting huge amounts of Daddy’s money was exactly what the casinos expected to see, and so was a way to slide the big bets in under the radar.
So it took me some eight paragraphs just to cover enough background to even start talking about how to feel about the movie. That’s never a good sign. Clearly watching this film as a means to gaining some insight into the MIT blackjack team is going to be a disappointment.
One interesting, and possibly revealing aside. When the film was entering development, the books’ author mused that filming would have to take place in some of the very casinos that were the target of the card-counting system portrayed. He speculated on what a problem that would be. As it turned out, the casinos were more than happy to participate. The fact of the matter is that casinos love it when people learn about how beatable blackjack is and flock to the casinos eager to try out their newly-learned card-counting skills. They tend to make mistakes and lose money, or just get bored with “the system” and just gamble. Yes, if someone is too successful at card counting (and it not outright cheating, which can be dealt with through the legal system), the casinos will take counter-measures. They may even exclude certain players from their floor. However, the casino basement where players a beaten, extorted, and occasionally robbed seems wholly created for dramatic effect.
But what about if we just forget about the “based on a true story” aspect and look at it as as a piece of entertainment? It’s hard to forget what you already know, but I’ll give it a try. As just a story, it’s been done (see Risky Business) and better (see Dope). The “math genius” angle is too simplified to draw me in and the romance angle is a little too one-dimensional to be beguiling. The villains are too over-the-top, and also simplified, for it to succeed on the conflict. In fact, while I’m at it, how can one consultant at one casino be at the center of taking down the team? How does that make sense? In the book it was (more plausibly, but still totally made up) an outside detective agency. Ugh.
So in the end, it wasn’t a horrible or painful experience, but also couldn’t rise above the “eh.” The one winner in all of this was the author, who went on to sell his Zuckerberg book to the studios to make the even-more-successful The Social Network.
*In some ways, you might say it was actually based on this Wired article. Kevin Spacey apparently read this article and was inspired to approach the author about turning it into a movie.
**The book takes place in ~1993, aligning itself with the the portion of the narrative that actually happened. The movie seems to be set in “present day,” which would be 2008. It added another measure of disbelief because, by 2008, the actual methods of the MIT Blackjack Team were already known and so, presumably, wouldn’t be so effective anymore.