Friday, March 28, 2008


The movie 21 opens today, the film based on the bestselling book Bringing Down the House by Ben Mezrick that chronicles the true-life story of a group of MIT math students who make millions counting cards in Vegas.

A lot of people, especially Asian-Americans, already dislike this movie because the races of the main characters were all changed from Asian-Americans to Caucasians. Prince Gomolvilas does a piece in Jukebox Stories called “21 Reasons the Movie 21 Already Sucks” that highlights this point. He very amusingly illustrates how no one would have stood for changing the race of Hurricane Carter, Malcolm X, or any of the real-life African-American characters Denzel Washington has played, but apparently it’s ok to do that to real-life Asian-Americans.

I told my screenwriter friend Chris about Prince’s piece. He called Hollywood's attitude towards minorities “horrifying.” Hollywood clings to this mistaken idea that the only way for a movie to make money is for it to have broad appeal and the only way to have broad appeal is to be about white people. Truth is not everyone needs to like a movie. You just need a small group of people to love it. And who’s to say a movie about Asian-American gamblers wouldn’t have broad appeal? The book certain did.

But that’s not why I’m predisposed to dislike 21 before I’ve seen it. A number of years ago Chris was working on a screenplay based on the real-life story of Darryl, a card counter he knew who had cut his teeth in the world of professional blackjack as a kid back in the 1970’s. That’s right, the MIT group didn’t invent card counting or even team-play, as much as they like to make it seem they did. In 1981, big-time card counter Ken Uston appeared on 60 Minutes and explained pretty much everything you needed to know to team-play card count. Legend has it when the episode aired, he was on the casino floor playing when suddenly his own face appeared on all the TV screens around him.

Chris’s script was a dark comedy, Boogie Nights meets Almost Famous. I read an early version of it and gave him feedback that ultimately ended up in the final script. The script didn’t romanticize the world of professional blackjack as much as it showed the ups and downs and downright bizarre. I loved it and was thrilled by the idea that he might sell it and someday I’d go to a movie I had known from its early pupa stage.

He finished the script and went down to Hollywood to pitch it to producers. Unfortunately he got to town the same week that Lawrence Fishburn signed on to do 21, and even though every producer loved his script, they weren’t going to buy it.

Now, I’m torn. Part of me would revel in the movie being a flop, but another part hopes it has enough success to make producers in Hollywood start searching for the next big blackjack movie. Then maybe I’ll have the thrill of seeing a movie bust out of that cocoon and fly away.

Even so, the real reason I dislike 21 is the bonehead marketing decision to release it on March 28th. Release it one week sooner and 21 opens 3/21.

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In 1789, the governor of Australia granted land and some animals to James Ruse in an experiment to see how long it would take him to support himself. Within 15 months he had become self sufficient. The area is still known as Experiment Farm. This is my Experiment Farm to see how long it will take me to support myself by writing.