By Youyoung Lee
March 28, 2008 at 09:25 PM EDT

My friend Ginny was walking around New York’s Chinatown the other day, where she stumbled upon a few posters calling 21, released today in theaters, racist. Why? Because the movie is based on a true story about sly MIT students who use their card-counting skills — and, as it happens, non-white profile — to swindle casino authorities out of millions of dollars. In a stroke of magic, Hollywood has these Asian students resurfacing as box office-friendly leads Jim Sturgess and Kate Bosworth (pictured), whose undeniable star quality is Sony’s way of hedging its bet.

Having watched the film, I was a bit taken aback. But then I realized that a lack of presence is just as offensive as an overtly stereotypical one, as the near-400 members of this Facebook group cry. “Tell Hollywood thatit’s okay to portray Asian-American men in lead roles asthree-dimensional characters with personalities, feelings, and a senseof humor. You know. Regular people. Is that too much to ask for?”

Actually, it is. Sony has good reason not to brave new territory.Movies with an all Asian-American cast barely register on the radar —2002’s Better Luck Tomorrow was but a short flicker of hope — unless they unfold in an antiquated, how-exotic-am-I kind of way, as in 1993’s Joy Luck Club, 2005’s Memoirs of a Geisha, or even 2007’s The Namesake. (One exception: stoner flick series Harold and Kumar, which stars John Cho and Kal Penn as just… stoners).What’s implied here — and is upsetting to me — is that a movie dealingwith an all-minority experience in America is unappealing, even more sowhen it’s for sheer entertainment and not doling out some somber lessonin history. Director Robert Luketic only exacerbates this point when hetypecasts Asian actors Lisa Lapira and Aaron Yoo as buffoonish, clumsysidekicks who compulsively steal and can barely manage a sentence.Mickey Rooney’s buck-toothed, yellowface character Mr. Yunioshi in Breakfast at Tiffany’s might recognize a distant kinship.

Perhaps the flick, getting mixed reviews, would have been better off had they heeded the text of Ben Mezrich’s book Bringing Down the House, on which the film is based:

“What exactly is our ‘profile’?” Kevin asked.

Martinez took the ball.

“Non-Caucasian, for one thing. Twenty-year-old white kids withmillion-dollar bankrolls raise a lot of suspicion. Asian, Greek,Persian — the kind of kids you see parking their BMWs outside of theArmani Café on Newbury Street, that’s who we’re looking for… Gamblingis an Asian obsession. And nobody lets their kids run as wild as richPersians and Greeks. Walk around any casino, the people throwing downpurple chips are almost always dark-skinned. Card counters, on theother hand, are usually balding white men with glasses. We can use onestereotype to trump another.”

What do you think, PopWatchers? Did 21 play its cards wrong, or just follow the house rules?