Leaving Las Vegas

1995, Movie, R, 112 mins


I don't go to Las Vegas. I don't often like films that go there. But long before the end of Mike Figgis's new movie, LEAVING LAS VEGAS, I didn't want to leave.

This is a story of the final resignation of a young man and the flickering resistance of a young woman. You could call them a postmodern Adam and Eve, banished from Paradise with nowhere to go. But if you're looking for easy metaphors, you should know that Vegas remains mostly in the background. The film hovers at street level, permitting the characters and their story to do the real allegorical work.

In some respects, this darkly engaging drama is reminiscent of a spate of recent movies about the uncertain aspirations of Generation X. But unlike, say, THE USUAL SUSPECTS -- which at its heart is a giant joke about a generation pretending to be crippled but laughing into its collar all the way to the bank -- LEAVING LAS VEGAS is a pretty fair representation of Gen X's sense of futility. No point in sticking around where it's played by the rules; you're better off in a town where you're done when your string runs out. (It's based on the semiautobiographical novel by John O'Brien, who killed himself two weeks after the deal was struck to make the book into a movie.)

As Ben Sanderson, Nicolas Cage's string runs out in L.A. He's wrecked his life, drinking away his family, his friends, even his face. When we meet him, he's about to lose his job as an agent. Summoned to the chairman's office, Ben gets the Gucci boot. It's a marvelous scene, adeptly handled by Figgis, who efficiently sketches the sleek, middle-aged fascism of the former Peace and Love generation.

A beat or two later, we see Ben tooling his way down the aisle of a Las Vegas liquor store, blithely loading a shopping cart to overfill -- two Jim Beams, coupla Stolies, whoops, don't forget the rum -- just a guy doing the week's grocery shopping for the final binge into oblivion. Ben is disarmingly frank about it: He's decided to drink himself to death.

Along the way, however, he meets Sera (Elisabeth Shue, in a clean, subtle performance), a hooker he hires just for conversation. Sera (Spanish for "will be") works the clubs for tricks, trying to thread the needle between the crazies and the leeches and survive. They make their bargain: She won't ask him to stop his liquid suicide, he won't judge her or interfere with her work. It's never as simple as that, of course, and their domesticity is complicated when love arrives, with its inconvenient companion -- hope.

British director Figgis, in recovery from last year's THE BROWNING VERSION, tempers the neon excess of his STORMY MONDAY and recaptures something of the sinister hush of INTERNAL AFFAIRS. The problematic Cage, still beefy from KISS OF DEATH and puffy enough to be plausible as a hopeless alky, nevertheless retains those liquid eyes from his pretty-boy days. Cage simply drinks his way down to ground zero in an Oscar-caliber performance. There's a raft of familiar faces in the backdrop, including Figgis, Julian Sands, Bob Rafelson, Lou Rawls and Valeria Golino, as well as a few songs by Sting.

LEAVING LAS VEGAS is special. A courageous plane wreck of character study, it had its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival, where critics divided between being seduced, as I was, and carping that it was faux Bukowski, which seems tautological to me.

It's a relief when so dark a film refuses to preach, trusting the viewer to draw his own conclusions about the roots of America's self-destructive funk. I don't know whether LEAVING LAS VEGAS is art, but it's what you're going to get when the 12-steppers and the Republicans combine forces to hijack the national agenda. leave a comment --Harlan Jacobson

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