Your number is up: ‘Stop-Loss,’ ‘21’ and ‘Fun, Fat Boy, Run’

This weekend bring us a trio of over-achieving guys, all working overtime to beat one system or another. In Stop-Loss, Ryan Phillippe plays a Texan war hero who becomes a fugitive after refusing a military order to return to Iraq. In 21, Jim Sturgess portrays an M.I.T. math wiz who wins a fortune counting cards at blackjack tables. And in Run, Fat Boy, Run, Simon Pegg is a perennial loser who enters the London Marathon in a bid to win back the girl he left at the altar. Respectively, we’re looking at a boisterous road drama, a glossy caper flick, and a slapstick romantic comedy. They’re all “action” movies of a sort—stories of stubborn heroes committed to high-stakes quests involving virtually insurmountable odds. And despite their wildly dissimilar styles, they’re all spins on familiar formula.

Stop-Loss—the first feature directed by Kimberly Peirce since Boys Don’t Cry (1999)—is the best of the bunch. It’s aims to be a Coming Home for our time, and it’s the first film about the Iraq war that attempts to be entertaining. For my thoughts on the film, along with my interview with Peirce, go to my piece in the magazine, Fresh from Iraq—soldiers gone wild.

The other two movies have some redeeming virtues, but I don’t recommend either. In both cases, smart music is used to pave over dumb scripts, and you know there’s a problem when the soundtrack has more depth than the narrative.

I’m always amazed at how a movie “based on a true story” can be so utterly fake. This one is based on Bringing Down the House: The Inside Story of Six M.I.T. Students Who Took Vegas for Millions, a non-fiction bestseller by Ben Mezrich. Directed by Robert Luketick—a 35-year-old Australian whose lightweight oeuvre ranges from Legally Blonde to Monster-In-Law21 is billed as an “action adventure,” which may seem odd, considering it’s about  college kids playing cards. But from the computer-generated opening sequence—a kind of helicopter shot that swoops over a microscopic close-up of a jack, it’s clear that these card games are going to play like battle scenes. Or rock videos. The designated rock star is an appealing young British actor, Jim Sturgess (Across the Universe), who makes a credible American in the role of M.I.T. braniac Ben Campbell. Ben has been accepted into Harvard medical school, but doesn’t know where he’s going to come up with the $300,000 in tuition and living expenses—unless he wins a long-shot scholarship, which would require him to write a “life experience” essay that will “dazzle” its academic overlord. Before you can say “Risky Business,” we know that Ben is about to embark on life experience that’s going to knock academia on its ear.

Enter Satan, in the guise of Kevin Spacey, performing a Keyser Söze turn as a slimy math professor named Micky who moonlights as a blackjack mastermind. Micky recruits the shy, vulnerable Ben onto a team of card-counting students who fly to Las Vegas each weekend to fleece the casinos. “I’ve been teaching for more than 14 years,” Micky tells him, “and I’ve never had a student as impressive as you—your brain is like a Pentium chip.” Betraying a pair of geek buddies, who are building a robot to win a science competition, Ben zooms into the fast lane. He spends his weekends in Vegas hotel suites and strip bars, while quarterbacking blackjack team of college hotties, who wear Mission Impossible disguises and communicate with coded hand signals. Meanwhile he slides into a romance with foxy lady (Kate Bosworth), the teammate who (Mata Hari-like) helped lure him into this underworld in first place.

With dry ice coursing through his veins, Micky keeps reminding his team that they’re not gambling. It’s not about luck or passion, he insists, just science. And counting cards is legal. But Ben is only human. Vegas is a tough town. And as brutal casino enforcer (Laurence Fishburne) picks up the scent, we know there will be tears before bedtime. We also know that, because this is Hollywood formula, our hero will somehow succeed in winning everything despite losing everything, including all traces of moral fibre.

I can’t say 21 is without some pleasures. I’m a sucker for neon landscapes and casinos lubricated with the throb of house music and the computer-enhanced smack of cards landing on green baize like rounds of ammo tearing up rice paddies in ‘Nam. The math is cool—makes you want to learn to count cards. And Sturgess is potentially likeable. At one point a teammate makes a crack about him looking looking like the guy in Rain Man. Not Tom Cruise, but the other guy—the retard. Actually, Sturgess comes across as a mix of Cruise in Risky Business and the young Dustin Hoffman in The Graduate. But he sells out his vulnerability to a movie that has as much soul as a line of cocaine on a chrome toilet fixture, and never gets it back. Despite the film’s attempt to mimic a speedy Goodfellas vibe—from the young narrator accelerating into a hell-bent spiral of ego and gluttony, to the inevitable Stones tune that cashes in the ending (“. . . you get what you need)—this movie is like a drug that comes on with a big fat buzz and leaves you feeling empty and cheated. Despite being “based on a true story,” the script is a loaded deck that plays like a pack of lies.
21 just doesn’t add up.

Run, Fat Boy, Run

By contrast, this screwball romantic farce is at least an honest confection. Simon Pegg, the Brit writer-actor best known for Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, stars as Dennis, a sad-sack security guard who’s trying to win back Libby (Thandie Newton), whom he left standing at the altar, visibly pregnant. Now Dennis  lives alone in a miserable little apartment, dotes on visiting rights with his son as a dedicated dad, and still hopes win back his ex against all odds. But he’s mortified when Libby falls for a rich, conceited square-jawed hunk named Whit (Hank Azaria), who believes he’s perfect in every way—and is a perfect asshole. Whit is training for the London marathon. So Dennis decides he, too, will run. He has just three weeks to turn his body—both weedy and pot-bellied—into race material, training with the help of his only friend, a fey slacker (Dylan Moran), and his stereotypical East Asian landlord (Harish Patel).

Run, Fat Boy, Run, which marks the inauspicious directorial debut of David Schwimmer, is a crude, silly compendium of sight gags. If the audience I watched it with is any indication, it’s a crowd pleaser. And if you scream with th
e laughter at the prospect of a blister the size of a golf ball being punctured with the ejaculatory force of the semen gag in There’s Something About Mary, this movie may be your cup of, uh, tea.

Much of the comedy left me cold. But the absurd Chariots of Fire spectacle in the third act does exert an irresistible tug at the heartstrings, even more so because it’s so preposterous. Although this very conventional comedy lacks the edge and wit of the movies that made Pegg famous, his charm shines through.

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