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Friday night’s South By premiere of the new gambling thriller 21 was my first re-introduction of the weekend to the Paramount Theater and what my friend Jon call’s the venue’s “chairs of sadness”. In theory, the Paramount is the ultimate way to see any movie. It’s a beautiful, old school theater; the kind with a balcony and a structural design which compared to modern prefab can only be described as absolute artwork. There’s a reason it’s South By’s premiere venue, it’s an incredible place to walk into. Still, when the lights go down you just can’t beat the leg stretching comfort of stadium seating.

I settled in quickly and resigned myself to leg cramps, knowing that I’ll be spending most of my SXSW week settled into one of the beautiful Paramount’s sadness seats. The lights went down and 21 director Robert Luketic got up on stage to introduce his movie by admitting something: He did it as a way to prove to people that he can do more than romantic comedies. About freakin time Luketic. If your IMDB page gets any more rom-commy we’re going to have to officially reclassify you as Reese Witherspoon’s houseboy. Luckily if 21 is any indicator, Luketic really can do more than romantic comedies. In fact, he’s better here than he’s ever been dabbling in squishy, fluffy romance.

21 is loosely based on the real-life story of MIT students who train to become expert card counters, and then take Vegas for everything they can. Ben Campbell (Jim Sturges) is kind of a nerd, even by MIT standards. So when his professor Mickey Rosa (Kevin Spacey) attempts to lure him into joining their group of card counting gamblers by promising out of this world riches, he turns him down in favor if the eight dollars an hour he’s making selling suits at a clothier, and building robots with his even nerdier friends. But what Ben can’t resist is “the girl”, and it’s the unattainable hot girl on campus, Jill Taylor (Kate Bosworth), who finally convinces Ben he wants in.

Once he’s in, Ben is really in, and soon the allure of the gambling life style has Ben trapped. Sturges is capable, if not spectacular as the unrealistically good looking geeky Ben, and Spacey is downright intimidating as the group’s defacto leader, professor gone bad character. Kevin’s always been best when he’s playing villains, and it’s good to see him returning to that in some of his more recent films. Soon Spacey’s dubious mentor character is engaged in a game of dominance with his own student. While card counting isn’t technically illegal Vegas beats the shit (quite literally) out of people who do it, and getting caught means more than just a losing hand.

The premise is engaging and Luketic’s directing choices are slick and lively. Unfortunately, the plot isn’t always exactly airtight, and the gaps keep this from being the instant poker-playing classic it could have been. Luckily, Luketic’s direction and his solid cast keep 21 fun and engaging, even in the occasional moments where the movie’s script seems to drop the ball on them. 21 is a crowd pleasing winner.

Now can someone tell me what the heck an all out popcorn flick like this is doing at a film festival? I guess even the hardest of hardcore film nerds needs something to break up the war documentary monotony.

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