These days, a lot of young actors are too attractive, or at least too confidently invested in the powers of their teenybop charisma, to do a convincing job of playing anyone normal. They may look great in tabloid party photographs, but when they're required to suffer or to show anxiety -- that is, when they have to behave like the rest of us -- they're like automatons who've been to acting class. They turn imperfection into dull posing.
Jim Sturgess, the star of the college-brainiacs-go-to-Vegas drama 21, is in a different league. It's not that he isn't cute. He looks a little like the young Paul McCartney (that must be part of why they cast him in Across the Universe), with a boy heartthrob's dewy eyes and friendly, puckered grin. In 21, though, he attaches real live nerve endings to that pretty-boy facade. He plays Ben Campbell, a math nerd at MIT who's recruited, by a wry Mephistopheles of a faculty member (Kevin Spacey), to join a secret team of student blackjack wizards who head to Las Vegas on weekends to rake in hundreds of thousands of dollars by counting cards. Sturgess wears his hair in a longish, haphazard cut that's like a floppy helmet. It's the armor of a kid who's shy about everything but his intelligence. As Ben, he's passive and slightly dorky, a gummy collegiate tangle of sweetness, IQ, and loser psychology. Ben hangs out with a couple of geeks (together they're building a robot), and he takes it as a fact that girls, or at least the hot ones, aren't interested in him. But when he sits down at the blackjack tables, that very hesitancy -- his reluctance to reveal himself -- works for him. His brainy reserve becomes cool, a way of negotiating risk. He's a Will Hunting who turns into James Bond.
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