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Ace in the hole 

Three films debut, but only one doesn't cheat viewers

Loosely adapted from Ben Mezrich's fact-based bestseller Bringing Down the House, 21 is an entertaining and fast-paced film that occasionally manages to make the act of counting cards seem as exciting as this past winter's Super Bowl -- and as perilous as climbing Mount Everest with both eyes closed.

Jim Sturgess, fresh off his starring role as Jude in Across the Universe (as well as a supporting turn in The Other Boleyn Girl), plays Ben Campbell, a brilliant MIT student who needs some serious dough in order to be able to afford a stint at Harvard. His intelligence catches the eye of Micky Rosa (Kevin Spacey), a shrewd professor whose extracurricular activity is training a hand-picked group of students in the art of counting cards at the blackjack table. He welcomes Ben to a gang that already includes two guys (Aaron Yoo and Jacob Pitts) and two girls (Kate Bosworth and Liza Lapira), and together they set off on weekly excursions to Las Vegas to clean up. Yet although they believe they're operating under the wire, their winning ways -- not to mention squabbles from within -- catch the eye of Cole Williams (Laurence Fishburne), an old-school casino enforcer whose preferred MO is taking cheaters to a back room and beating them to a bloody pulp.

The movie works best during its first act, when the fascinating con game is explained to Ben (and to us), and during its second act, when Ben feels his life spiraling out of control as he makes a series of mistakes that could cost him everything. Scripters Peter Steinfeld and Allan Loeb only really lose control during the third act, when an important plot point too lumpy to swallow leads to a series of increasingly unbelievable developments. Yet even during this convoluted section, director Robert Luketic and a perfectly cast Spacey insure that this stylish film maintains a winning hand.

WELL, AT LEAST the kids try hard.

As the trio of dweebs who find themselves the perpetual targets of high school bullies, lanky Nate Hartley, rotund Troy Gentile and spastic David Dorfman turn in natural, likable performances that go a long way toward making this dopey comedy even remotely watchable. Even so, the three are basically carbon copies of Superbad's lanky Michael Cera, rotund Jonah Hill and spastic Christopher Mintz-Plasse -- hardly a surprise, given that both films were produced by Judd Apatow and co-written by Seth Rogen.

Both movies largely deal with three nerds trying to appear cool to their fellow students; the added attraction here is the character of Drillbit Taylor (Owen Wilson), a homeless man who passes himself off as a bodyguard in order to earn some money protecting the undersized freshmen from the vicious seniors (Alex Frost and Josh Peck) who terrorize them at every turn.

An assembly-line comedy in virtually every facet -- you can set your watch by the moment when the formerly aloof Drillbit is visibly moved by a charitable act on the part of one of the boys -- this dispiriting attempt at corralling laughs has little to offer anyone except die-hard Owen Wilson fans, and even those devotees might feel dejected after watching this charming if one-note actor spinning his wheels in such a tiresome character type. While we're thankfully not subjected to a film nearly as atrocious as Wilson's 2006 You, Me and Dupree, rest assured that you, me and Drillbit Taylor isn't a recipe for enjoyment, either.

RUN FAT BOY RUN stars one of the two male leads (Simon Pegg) from Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, and, no, it isn't the fat one. Instead, it's the average-sized one, immediately nullifying this movie's title. Now if only someone had nullified this picture's very existence, we'd have one less bomb taking up valuable multiplex space.

Instead, we're stuck with a wretched comedy whose greatest claim to, uh, fame is that it marks the directorial debut of Friends co-star David Schwimmer. But with friends like Schwimmer, who needs enemies? Along with writers Michael Ian Black and Pegg, Schwimmer has served up a broad, crass and spectacularly unfunny piece about a sad sack who abandoned his pregnant fiancée at the altar on their wedding day. Five years later, Dennis (Pegg) continues to regret the cowardice he displayed on that day, but the only reason Libby (Thandie Newton) hasn't shut him out of her life completely is because she believes their child Jake (Matthew Fenton) should have a relationship with his father. Dennis hopes to somehow win back Libby, but time is running out since she's becoming more heavily involved with a successful businessman named Whit (Hank Azaria). The lazy and physically unfit Dennis is no match for the industrious and health-conscious Whit, but that doesn't prevent him from entering a 28-mile marathon in an effort to gain back Libby's love and respect.

It's a thin premise undermined by rampant stupidity at every turn, from the lazy decision to turn Whit into a paper-thin villain (so audiences won't have to strain their brains deciding who's better for Libby) to the infantile brand of comedy that appears at alarming intervals right up to the very end (literally; the final shot in the movie is a close-up of a pale bare bottom). Any random episode of The Benny Hill Show looks as elegant and sophisticated as Top Hat when compared to this dud.

To see trailers of the reviewed films, go to

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