Starring: Nicolas Cage, Elisabeth Shue
The version being reviewed is unrated. For the record, the theatrical cut is rated R for Strong Sexuality and Language, Violence and Pervasive Alcohol Abuse
"Leaving Las Vegas" is one of those movies that is either a tremendous success or a colossal failure. There is no safety net with a story like this. Considering the risk-averse nature of Hollywood, it's a wonder why films like this ever get made, but thank God they do. We need movies like "Leaving Las Vegas" as much as we need movies like "The Avengers." More so, in fact.
Despite the dreaminess of its title and premise, and the rather optimistic trailer, "Leaving Las Vegas" is anything but glamorous or easy viewing. This is a motel that takes place in sleazy motels and even sleazier bars. The only time it gets close to the glamor is when a night on the town turns into a complete disaster. Cheap cigarettes and cheap liquor, not glitz and fantasy, are the reality for the characters in this movie. It's a far different view of Las Vegas than we usually get.
Ben Sanderson (Cage) is a Hollywood executive and an alcoholic. He's lost everything: his job, his family, his self-respect. "I don't know if I started drinking 'cause my wife left me or my wife left me 'cause I started drinking, but fuck it anyway," he muses to a hooker giving him a blow job (before stealing his wedding ring). That alone should tell you that this is not a traditional love story.
Sera (Shue) is a prostitute working in Las Vegas for a shady character named Yuri (Julian Sands). She has accepted her lot in life and does the best she can with the card she's been dealt. But she is profoundly lonely. As she tells an unseen therapist, she can size up a man in a second and know exactly what he wants. Thus, she spends half her life being someone else's fantasy.
When the two of them meet, it's not love at first sight, but there is a spark of something powerful between them. It isn't long before they're living together, although their relationship is built on non-judgement: he won't judge her for her career and she won't ask him to stop drinking.
Making a movie like this takes an extraordinary amount of daring. The roles of Ben and Sera (there are other characters who float in and out, but none last long) are so raw, so real, so challenging that all but the most dedicated would flee. Fortunately, director Mike Figgis found two actors who not only would do the roles, but could do them justice.
Nicolas Cage has become as much a whipping boy in pop culture as the man who directed him in "The Rock." So much so that people hate him without being able to explain why. Perhaps it is because he has been appearing in bottom of the barrel movies of late. Readers would do well to know that Cage lost a fortune in the Great Recession. I've never gotten on that gravy train. I've always liked Cage, and here he lays it bare. It would have been too easy for him to just play a drunk. But Cage gives us a man who is more complicated. Ben is a good soul, but he has been so hurt by life and so crippled by addiction that he has given up and accepted the inevitable. It's a stunning performance in a difficult role.
Elisabeth Shue shed her "girl next door" image from movies like "The Karate Kid" and the "Back to the Future" franchise and took her first adult role. Her role is also tricky. She is playing a character who accepts a man on his own terms, so much so that she is willing to watch him die a slow and agonizing death. Anyone watching this movie will see her success.
This is not a story of redemption; Ben doesn't have a shining moment of truth and there are no happy endings. In a way, it's like great opera. The story isn't overwrought but just as tragic. After all, what could be more sad than watching two good people go down an unhappy road to a destination of death and pain?
Putting this story to film was no easy task. The writer of the novel it was based on, John O'Brien, shot himself two weeks after the film went into production, nearly causing Mike Figgis to abandon it. Filming permits were denied for some scenes forcing the cast and crew to shoot them in one take. What's all the more astonishing about this movie (other than it managed to get made at all and be a terrific film) is the number of high profile cameos in the film. A few were pre-fame, but many were at the height of their stardom. And what names they are: Julian Sands as Yuri, Richard Lewis and Steven Weber as studio executives, Emily Procter as an actress, Danny Huston as a bartender, Valeria Golino as a woman subjected to Ben's advances, Carey Lowell as a bank teller, Lucinda Jenny as a weirdo barfly, French Steward and Ed Lauter as mobsters, R. Lee Ermey as a conventioneer, Mariska Hargitay as a hooker, Laurie Metcalf as a landlady, Shawnee Smith as a biker chick, director Bob Rafelson as a guy at the mall, Xander Berkley as a cabbie and Michael Goorjian as a college aged rapist. Supermodel Naomi Campbell had a cameo but her scenes were deleted. What a cast that is!
"Leaving Las Vegas" isn't your typical Friday night movie and it's not a journey many people will want to take. But for those who venture in, it's not an experience that will soon be forgotten.