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Double down and Hollywood up

Playing the facts against the fiction of 21
By BRETT MICHEL  |  March 26, 2008


Sometimes Hollywood gets it right; sometimes Hollywood . . . ah, elaborates. This week sees the release of the latest movie to emerge from Hollywood’s seemingly compulsive gamble on Boston — Robert Luketic’s 21 (see our review), “inspired by” writer Ben Mezrich’s (mostly) nonfiction bestseller Bringing Down the House: The Inside Story of Six M.I.T. Students Who Took Vegas for Millions. In addition to a pair of weeks of shooting in Nevada’s City of Sin, filmmakers spent six weeks on location around Boston and Cambridge this past year.

Speaking from his suite at the Four Seasons during a recent promotional tour, Jim Sturgess, the 26-year-old Londoner who plays the lead role of card-counting genius Ben Campbell, outlined the version of Mezrich’s book that made it to the screen. In 21, Campbell is a middle-class genius from Southie who attends classes at MIT. On weekends, he and four classmates (Not five? Hmmm?) fly to Vegas and win thousands by beating the blackjack tables. Even Campbell’s widowed mother, struggling to provide her son with an education, doesn’t know about the scheme. During all this, Campbell and a teammate (played by Kate Bosworth) hook up.

In the book, on the other hand, the character is named Kevin Lewis. Sturgess explains that producers couldn’t use that name in the script “due to [unspecified] legal reasons.” So why not just call the hero Jeff Ma, the real name of the now-public math whiz who beat the house? And how much of the film is actually based on Mezrich’s text, which, according to its author, is “about 90 percent completely factual”? Ma and Mezrich, also along for the press tour, address these questions.

Ma, a Chinese-American, doubts the necessity of casting an Asian to portray him on celluloid. “What was most important,” he says, “was that [the movie] captured a few fundamental things that were so quintessential to who I am right now, and who I was before, the transformation that happened to me, where I went from being an MIT nerd to all of a sudden being confident enough to land a girl like Kate Bosworth.”

Did Ma date a member of his blackjack squad? No, but he did date an NFL cheerleader. “I met her in Vegas. Beautiful woman. Not someone that, if I was walking in the streets of Cambridge, would ever have talked to me.”

“There are a lot of things [in the movie] that are taken directly from Jeff’s experiences in Vegas,” says Mezrich. But, he cautions, the third act of the film “is definitely the ‘Hollywood’ act.” (Spoiler alert, y’all.)

Wait, you mean there wasn’t a conniving math professor (Kevin Spacey) abusing his students’ trust for personal gain?

“That part was a little bit ‘Hollywooded-up,’ ” says Ma. “The reality is that while they captured some things really well, the actual storyline is changed quite a bit. Like, where I’m from, and my family. Speaking of, my dad’s coming to the screening tonight.”

Wait, he’s not dead?

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