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On Movies: 'Legally,' '21'? He's got a pair

Category: The Ugly Truth News
Article Date: March 23, 2008 | Publication: Philadelphia Inquirer | Author: Steven Rea

Posted by: maryp

'Oh, yeah, let's get the Legally Blonde guy to do a Vegas heist film" - that was the initial, dismissive response, Robert Luketic recalls, when he started pitching himself as the perfect candidate to direct 21.
Here he was, a little-known Aussie with a surprise Reese Witherspoon hit and the lighter-than-air Kate Bosworth rom-com Win a Date With Tad Hamilton to his credit, presenting himself as the man to pull off the taut, true-life tale of a bunch of M.I.T. brainiacs who figured out how to beat the house in Las Vegas.

"It was very liberating for me to be given a chance to do this," Luketic says, on the phone from his adopted home of Los Angeles. "I was very frank and honest with myself, my name's not the first that comes to mind when you think of this genre, given the kind of movies that I've done before. . . .

"This was really something I had to fight for - it was almost like going back to being a first-time filmmaker again: get in the room and really prove that you were right for the job, which wasn't easy."

But he did just that, explaining to the powers-that-be - including Kevin Spacey, who plays the students' M.I.T. prof in the pic, and who also produced the project - that he knew how to make the blackjack sequences exciting for viewers. As anyone who has dozed off during the long card-playing sequences in Casino Royale can attest, a deck of plastic-laminated diamonds and clubs, hearts and spades does not a riveting piece of cinema make.

"I talked about how blackjack wasn't a spectator sport, but how I would make it visually compelling," says Luketic (lou-KET-ick). "That every time we see them playing blackjack that it had to be full of tension and thrilling. Because no one goes to Vegas and hangs around a blackjack table watching people play. I couldn't think of anything more boring. And there was a lot of very traditional card-play in the script. So, I messed with that a little bit."

21, which opens in area theaters Friday, is adapted from the book Bringing Down the House, Ben Mezrich's expansion of an article he wrote for Wired magazine about a group of math whizzes from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who, back in the '90s, came up with a complex system to beat the odds at blackjack and take the casinos for millions. Luketic cast Jim Sturgess (the Beatlesque Brit in Across the Universe) as the group's chief numbers man. Bosworth, Laurence Fishburne, Liza Lapira, Jacob Pitts and Aaron Yoo also star.

Luketic, 34, read the Wired article when it came out in 2001. "I was struck by what a great idea for a movie this would be, and the fact that it was a true story," he says. "There was nothing particularly special about card counters, they'd been around for a while - as long as Vegas has existed, people have tried to work a scam or an angle. But what was fascinating was the complex system of body language and words they employed, and the way that it was made into a team effort. . . . And that these kids actually, really did change the system, they fundamentally changed the rules by which casinos now operate today. They had a real impact, they were major players.

"I also loved the notion of a group of nerds inheriting the keys to Las Vegas. There was something very appealing about that."

So Luketic called his agent and told her to look into buying the rights to Mezrich's article. "A half-hour later she called back and said, 'We're too late. Kevin Spacey's company has just snatched it up.' I was disappointed, and I remember throwing the magazine across the room, feeling frustrated. I may have said a few cuss words or whatever, but you go on with your life."

Five years later, Luketic was poring through a stack of scripts. "I was looking for something different to do, and a script called 21 hits my desk," he says. "And I had no idea that this was Bringing Down the House. . . . and about 10 pages in, I'm like, 'Hang on a minute . . . how did this happen!?' "

Which led to Luketic's meeting with Spacey, which led to Luketic's getting the job. 21 was shot last year in Boston and Las Vegas, and the director says the final cut, audience-tested and studio-vetted, is close to the vision he originally had in his head.

With his rollicking heist adventure under his belt, Luketic is returning to the romantic comedy genre. The Ugly Truth, with Katherine Heigl and Gerard Butler, starts shooting in three weeks. The director has been busy with preproduction details, and rounding up the rest of his cast, which includes Cheryl Hines, John Michael Higgins, and Kevin Connelly from Entourage.

"It's amazing the minutia my day is filled with," he cracks. "One hour we'll be talking about how tight Katherine Heigl's dress should be, the next it's what accent Gerard Butler should have." (Luketic says that's a matter of great debate right now - whether to let the 300 star talk with his native Scots burr, or go American for the role.)

But Luketic promises that The Ugly Truth, slated for release next spring, is a different, more honest sort of rom-com.

"We have to be able to adapt to changing tastes," he says. "People still love to go and see comedies, and romantic comedies, but . . . I don't think the sugar-coated, candy-sweet version really works anymore. I think we're a little more cynical. That's just our state of mind right now.

"This comedy is a little racier, it's an R-rated comedy, and it's a little more honest, a little more frank about the way men are, and the way women are, and what we expect of each other."


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