LEAVING LAS VEGAS (1995) ** 3/4
Ben, arguably the heaviest drinker in movie history, is a gigaholic. Dismissed from his Hollywood job, he heads for Vegas. There he has a strange love affair with hooker Sera. Contrary to the old film cliches, there is no mutual regeneration in this odd couple.
The film, out for months, only recently made it to my town. By then I was aware of its unamimously enthusiastic (so far as I know) critical reception, and that Oscar nominations were almost guaranteed -- even though its subject does not make Cage and Shue shoo-ins for the big acting prizes.
By coincidence, the day after I finally saw that movie, Dick F., a close friend, fine academic, actor and critic -- a man who understands movies -- asked for my reactions to it. Here they are, pell-mell, with mixed praise and reservations, the way I e-mailed them to him.
1) Logically, what with Ben's daily bathtubful of alcohol, he should have arrived in Vegas in a hearse.
2) A drunk of his caliber and a prostitute of Sera's type are not intrinsically interesting.
3) We never learn what drove Ben to the hooch, except that he now drinks because his wife has left him... because he drank. A vicious circle. We know that Sera seems proud of her talent for adapting to men's wishes and fantasies. "I turn on, I become who they want..." She is also rather smug about the money she makes. "I get $300 just to get in his room, and it's $500 after that." This does no make her "simpatica."
4) I use the phrase "not interesting" but not "unappealing" or "depressing." The last two are not drawbacks. Many top movies are about human monsters. But "uninteresting" is a liability.
5) Gertrude Stein said that the ordinary is more interesting than the extraordinary. She was right. Crazies or weirdos are not automatically interesting without deeper layers or sub-texts.
6) Other mega-drunks can be more involving. As in John Ford's "The Fugitive, " with Henry Fonda as the "whiskey priest, " from Graham Greene's moving "The Power and the Glory." Or, from another Greene book, "The Honorary Consul, " with its great turn by Michael Caine. Or Albert Finney in John Huston's neglected "Under the Volcano." Or the classic "The Lost Weekend" with its pathetic dipso. Or "Days of Wine and Roses" with its terrible slides into booze. Or the weird, nihilistic "Barfly, " with Mickey Rourke and Faye Dunaway, both irritating actors -- which makes them all the more convincing as lushes.
7) Nicolas Cage is on my short list of the best performers around today. Again, his acting certainly is up to his standards. He squeezes every drop of his role with minimal expressions, has an odd type of politeness, gentleness and sincerity. His pores must ooze alcohol, but behind the skin he is a potentially likable fellow, which makes his tragedy all the sadder. Even so, his character is so limited by the script that he did not engage my attention sufficiently.
8) Ben is no liar, yet he states that he is great in bed. It is widely held that alcohol may increase desire but impedes performance. Go figure.
9) Sera's part is rather undeveloped. That she will fall incongruously for the drunk is telegraphed early on. That, with the rates she charges and at the rate she is going, she may well end up terminally diseased or even killed by someone (her profession has that risk) is also clear. The affair between two dregs is an old romantic cliche, but, I admit, carefully camouflaged by risque realism.
10) Photography is excellent -- with hand-held shots and quick transitions -- and all the more remarkable as it was shot on Super-16mm stock. But why are the views of Vegas so lush, especially the night shots? Why romanticize a place that is tawdry, Mafia-ridden and coarse, a place that, metaphorically, reeks of sex-for-pay and greenbacks? This might have been justified if shown as the perception of romantic lovers, but this couple is beyond esthetic fantasies.
(After writing the above I was told that in a TV interview director Figgis did address someone's complaint that night exteriors "looked too pretty." He replied that the camera-people shot handheld, with available or minimal light, and let the backgrounds just happen, so that the result was unintentional beauty. I'll have to think about this).
11) The photography as well as the story can become precious, as in boozing underwater in a motel pool. I allow however that the vacation spot has a desolate ambiance that fits the mood, and that there was clever staging in the way the motel owner, with contained rage, throws out the couple.
12) The odd name Sera is too obvious: it points to Que Sera, Sera (What Will Be, Will Be), which leads to the notion of fatality as well as to an anti-Doris Day image.
13) Sera's pimp sordidly sells her in Vegas. We learn nothing about where those two are coming from. Physically they come from Los Angeles, but their past is a mystery. Ben too is from L.A., but at least he comes from the movie world which is its own kind of prostitution, a parallel to Sera's profession. (Note the opening of the movie in a restaurant where two bimbos are ready to do themselves some good by joining their Hollywood-executive male hosts on the casting couch).
14) Sera gives Ben a hip flask, another obvious symbol. It stands for her complying with Ben's request after she had offered him to stay in her apartment : "I'll do it but you must never ask me to stop drinking." The flask, however, is so ludicrously tiny for someone with superhuman imbibing powers that it becomes comical.
15) The film, proceeds rather than progresses, which is OK. But the talk remains dull, the twosome, indifferent. Their speech may be natural, but it paints the movie into a corner. How much could one take of a "prehistoric" flick with people who just grunt, were it not for action (a saber-tooth tiger?) and Raquel Welch in a bikini?
16) On the positive side, Shue is capable and visually intriguing: mow she looks now like a sleazy hooker, now like a sexy, rather elegant one, now like a college student, then like the girl-next-door or the young mother across the street.
17) On the negative side. The abuse and violence visited on Sera feel like a "hey, let's have some action" afterthought. Experienced and streetwise as she is, she should have detected trouble instantly, and avoided it.
18) On the confusing side. Sera provides a commentary by appearing somewhere periodically and talking to someone whom we don't see in what seem to be different times, places and people. Murky. Perhaps the filmmakers had planned to use a narration like those often found in films noirs, then thought better of it.
19) On the irrelevant side. A TV is showing bits of actors Alida Valli and Joseph Cotten, in not just one but two different movies, "Walk Softly, Stranger, " then "The Third Man." In the first film, Cotten is a crook redeemed by beautiful crippled Valli. In the second, he discovers that his pal Orson Welles is a crook and he (Cotten)is scorned by Valli. I cannot find any connections to "Vegas."
20) The sexual climax is called "la petite mort" (the small death) in French and perhaps in other languages. Preciously, it is combined here with the big death. Ho-hum.
21) The acting is, I repeat, very good, in the grand manner (plus the Grand Marnier manner). At least Cage dies without saying "Rosebud."
Sad footnote. The author of the source novel committed suicide a fortnight after the movie contract had been signed.