- Kenny Rogers was a much better gambler.
Smarmy but brilliant MIT math professor, Micky Rosa (Kevin Spacey) first recognizes Ben's aptitude for gaming when Ben gives an inspired answer to a challenging question during a class. Ben has been accepted to Harvard Medical School but needs to come up with cash for the $300,000 education. The powerful Professor Rosa lures Ben into a supposedly legal card-counting scheme with a group of gifted young math scholars. The result is a fortune made at the Vegas blackjack tables. At various intervals over a two-year period, they escape a drab, wintry-looking Boston to live like high-stakes rock stars in Sin City. Ben's original goal is to make just enough money to pay for Harvard and then stop. As fate would have it, greed and his own ego get the best of him. But, for a guy in the grip of temptation, Ben's understated character seems kind of flat.
While making the transition from shy geek to over-confident mastermind, Ben ditches his two best friends, a narrative signal that he's headed for a fall. In the process, he learns through a few brutal lessons-that non-rock star values like loyalty, commitment, persistence and hard work are what count in the long haul. The movie doesn't come off as preachy, though. And, for a while, the Las Vegas scenes are fun to watch, if overly long.
If there's a standout in this film, it's Spacey's provocative Professor Rosa. Spacey's ability to play mercurial characters-in this case moving from the gifted professor to the deliciously devilish con artist-is richly plumbed here. At times we even want to admire Rosa, but we also sense that he can be cunning and dangerous. At one point, Rosa matches wits with casino security man Cole Williams (Laurence Fishburne) who, it turns out, can also count cards. Predictably, Williams ferrets out the scam.
The rest of the cast seems frivolously superfluous, or in the case of Jill Taylor (Kate Bosworth), Ben's queen of hearts, rather wooden. There is little to no chemistry between the two of them, even if it's somewhat rewarding to watch the brainy guy get the girl. The hand gestures between team members, who are mostly "spotters," signaling a "hot" table (when the house is at a statistical disadvantage) appear obvious. Also, there is something cliché about taking the hero down to the "dungeon" and beating the shit out of him.
The movie is largely predictable and too long. Still, it forces you to ask yourself what you would do under similar circumstances. Would you be seduced? And where is the line between legality and morality? We get to ponder these questions while taking a nice little jaunt to Vegas along the way.