"Leaving Las Vegas" is a film laden with virtues but difficult to embrace. Beautifully put together, sensitively acted by Nicolas Cage and Elisabeth Shue, directed by Mike Figgis with assurance and style and making exceptional use of its musical score, this doomed romance is finally not as satisfying as all of that would have you believe.
One reason is an obvious one, intentionally crafted by the filmmakers themselves. The uncompromisingly downbeat story of a love affair between a hard-luck prostitute and a man hellbent on drinking himself to death, "Leaving Las Vegas" is one of the bleakest romances in memory, a totally despairing film, complete with a wrenchingly explicit scene of anal rape, that is shrouded in a miasma of hopelessness. If this is what great romance means, audiences may feel like settling for whatever's in second place.
In addition, the more "Las Vegas" makes a fetish out of authenticity, implicitly telling you that if you're uncomfortable it's because what you're watching is unbearably real, the more it stylizes, glorifies and romanticizes its despair. Though everything seems realistic at first, it doesn't take much scrutiny to reveal the gloss of artificiality. And if this film turns out to be just another Hollywood fantasy, its rationale for inflicting pain on viewers becomes increasingly shaky.
Writer-director Figgis, who also wrote the film's moody score, has had a career as ambivalent as this picture, similarly balanced between grittiness and artificiality. Besides doing his share of standard fare, including "Mr. Jones" and the recent "The Browning Version," he also directed a pair of small but artful paeans to despair, "Stormy Monday" and "Liebestraum."
Connecting to the semi-autobiographical novel by John O'Brien that "Las Vegas" is based on, Figgis determined to make it without compromising his vision, even though there was apparently not much of a budget to work with. Collaborating with cinematographer Declan Quinn, Figgis shot the whole movie on inexpensive Super 16 film, working documentary style on Las Vegas' streets and infusing Cage and Shue with a passion for their characters.
Cage plays Ben Sanderson, a Hollywood fellow-traveler whose life in L.A. is displayed in an extensive pre-credits prologue. For reasons that are left vague if they exist at all, Ben is a palsied wreck of an alcoholic, determinedly drinking himself out of job, friends and any kind of human sympathy. Though some of Cage's natural charm leaks into the role, Ben on a bender is a terrifying sight, alienating everyone in his path.
The movie proper begins when Ben arrives in Las Vegas, checks into a misbegotten motel and runs into a prostitute named Sera (Shue, best known for "Karate Kid"-type ingenue roles) cruising the Strip. Sex doesn't really interest him, he just wants to talk and what he mostly wants to say is that he is set on drinking himself to death in as short a time as possible.
Having just escaped from a relationship with a sadistic pimp named Yuri (Julian Sands), Sera is at loose ends herself. Warily, she and Ben dance around a loving, mostly non-sexual relationship that is based on avoidance of judgmental attitudes all around: He isn't to complain about her line of work and she is under no circumstances to try to get him to stop drinking.
Though the artifice in this setup is obvious in print, on the screen the impassioned actors and Figgis do a convincing job of making it resemble reality, partially by piling painful misery on top of painful misery for its protagonists, until it seems like the entire movie is in the shadow of an enormous black cloud.
Yet to concentrate only on the misery is to gainsay the great skill Figgis brings to his work here. Determined to do nothing the ordinary way, he has put a distinctive visual flourish into almost every scene. And the way he has complexly layered music into the film to establish mood, using not only his own score but soulful versions of standards (Sting singing "It's a Lonesome Old Town," Don Henley doing "Come Rain or Come Shine") will be admired for years to come.
But more than the miserable existences Ben and Sera live end up becoming troublesome. The film cheats on its honesty, first, through a series of flash-forwards, by taking pains to assure us that at least one of these lovers will have a happy future. Figgis' script makes both characters more poetically articulate than they ought to be, and certainly experienced streetwalkers are rarely as attractive as Shue. As for Cage's character, though Ben suffers mightily, anyone who has walked around L.A.'s Skid Row knows that he looks almost glowing compared to those who are truly drinking themselves to death.
What we're left with is a superbly constructed sham that makes you suffer by pretending it's real. "Leaving Las Vegas" is so marvelously put together it's sure to have an effect, but despite how hard it pushes, in the final analysis it's too much of a pose to break your heart.
* MPAA rating: R, for strong sexuality and language, violence and pervasive alcohol abuse. Times guidelines: an extremely graphic scene of anal rape.
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'Leaving Las Vegas'
Nicolas Cage: Ben Sanderson
Elisabeth Shue: Sera
Julian Sands: Yuri
Lumiere Pictures presents, a Lila Cazes production, released by United Artists. Director Mike Figgis. Producers Lila Cazes, Annie Stewart. Executive producers Paige Simpson, Stuart Regen. Screenplay Mike Figgis, based on the novel by John O'Brien. Cinematographer Declan Quinn. Editor John Smith. Costumes Laura Goldsmith. Music Mike Figgis. Production design Waldemar Kalinowski. Art director Barry M. Kingston. Set decorator Florence Fellman. Running time: 1 hour, 52 minutes.
* In limited release. AMC Century 14, Century City, (310) 553-8900. Cineplex Beverly Center, Beverly Hills, (310) 652-7760. Cineplex Odeon Broadway Cinemas, Santa Monica, (310) 458-1506.