In Leaving Las Vegas, Nicolas Cage plays Benjamin, an alcoholic who’s lost his family and his job and moves to Las Vegas to quite deliberately drink himself to death over the course of four weeks’ time. While he’s there, he meets a hooker named Sera, played by Elisabeth Shue, who’s cast adrift, so to speak, when her boyfriend and pimp (Julian Sands) is finally murdered by the thugs he owes money to. Since these two are just about the neediest people on the planet, they immediately fall into a codependent relationship. Ben agrees to vacate his room at the $29-a-night Whole Year Inn (in an unusual moment of lucidity, Ben reads the sign as “the hole you’re in”) and move in with Sera on one condition — she can never ask him to stop drinking.
I’ll say it one more time: Leaving Las Vegas is about a man who moves to Vegas and drinks himself to death. It’s not a comedy, and it’s very depressing. Still interested? The good news is that the movie is exceedingly well acted, skillfully crafted, and even, at times, a joy. That Benjamin’s character can be so damn charming in the middle of this deadly predicament is due to Cage’s staggering and ever-expanding talent for playing the loser beautifully. Shue is remarkable as well, even though her beauty, charisma, and demeanor totally belie her supposed lot in life as a Vegas street hooker. Regardless, if critics are talking Nicole Kidman up as an Oscar nominee for the color-by-numbers To Die For, Shue ought to clinch the Nobel Prize for what she goes through bringing this to the screen.
Thank God director Mike Figgis knows his medium, because this material would verge on maudlin without sure guidance. John O’Brien’s novel is deliberately harrowing, and it won’t make you feel any better to know that the writer committed suicide just a couple of weeks after his book was optioned as a film. He would have profited, no doubt, from the movie’s release, but you sense that he and his characters were living in the same lonely place, and sought release.
Their sorry lots in life don’t bar Ben and Sera from some semblance of a romantic relationship, and Leaving Las Vegas is indeed a love story. As far as eroticism goes, the movie’s mostly sleazy without being sexy, and I get the feeling that’s an adequate representation of the city itself. There’s certainly nothing romantic about the way Ben drinks (indeed, he’s more or less impotent), though the opening scene is a jaunty shot of him quite literally dancing down the aisles of a liquor store, pushing a cart filled with bottles of all shapes and sizes. When he goes into withdrawal, he trembles and stutters until he unstops another bottle or drains another glass, and he becomes remarkably witty and self-assured, if not entirely pleasant. Cage digs deep to find Benjamin’s humanity, and it’s brave for the film to allow this level of dignity to such a blasted out, hopeless character while acknowledging the fundamental disaster of his life.
And it’s no mean feat for the movie to maintain credibility. Leaving Las Vegas is about a desperate relationship that somehow transcends traditional needs, and short circuits the sex drive (Sera is, after all, going out and turning tricks even after Ben moves in). One scene, which defines completely the seductive appeal of an alcoholic haze, has Ben and Sera getting hot and bothered as Sera peels off her swimsuit and pours liquor down the front of her body in an act that takes the sublimated sexuality of TV beer commercials to its erotic extreme. And of course, there’s an abrupt comedown from the sexual high that neatly negates the fetish.
That’s just one great scene in a movie that’s full of them, and with hardly a misstep. Figgis takes an unconventional, bravura approach to the film, and it pays off by making the experience something more than a straightforward sad story (as movie-of-the-week material, this tale would be deadly). The pre-credit sequence stretches out for what seems like 10 minutes, until an obstinate, jazzy score (also composed by director Figgis) wells up over the credits. It plays in hip, sidling counterpoint to Benjamin’s bleak motives for the rest of the film. (My own pet peeve is the gaggle of Sting songs that punctuate the soundtrack, with his vocals so high in the mix that you wind up thinking about Sting’s slightly daffy lyrics instead of the matters onscreen.) If anything, Figgis’ jumpy style is a little too much for his material, but this is, after all, a story of excess.
As a treatise on the savagery of alcohol addiction, Leaving Las Vegas is a winner, but I’m not sure what else Hollywood had in mind when the story was optioned. To be sure, this is a movie that brutalizes its characters from start to finish — and poor Sera comes out the big loser, since Ben is the one who fulfills the mission of the movie’s title. Curiously, we get no sense of the direction her character is heading at the end of the film, even though we’ve witnessed her desperate devotion to Ben and her abject humiliation at the hands of lovers and strangers. Maybe a brilliant movie about alcoholism must by definition be unsatisfying, but this one’s a tough sell. For all its sincerity and virtue, Leaving Las Vegas is a movie that empties you out, and doesn’t give much back.