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Leaving Las Vegas

Review by Carrie Gorringe


Directed by Mike Figgis.

Starring Nicolas Cage,
Elisabeth Shue and Julian Sands.

When Ben Sanderson (Cage) first appears on screen, he is obviously a man at the end of his emotional and professional rope, so much so that he has nothing left with which, as the old cliché goes, to tie a knot and hang on. The audience sees him hitting up old friends for drinking money, making visits to the liquor store, and getting fired from his screenwriting job. Through flashbacks, the audience learns that Ben’s traumas have been exacerbated through a classic, self-imposed catch-22: his wife and son left him because of his drinking, a fact that has caused his drinking to spiral out of control. Ben isn’t knee-deep in self-pity; he has drowned in it, with no hope of ever resurfacing -- alive. Now unemployed, with no prospects in sight (a sojourn at the Betty Ford Clinic obviously isn’t one of the options under consideration), Ben decides to take his severance pay, drive to Las Vegas, pawn his Rolex Daytona, sell his BMW, and then use the proceeds to drink himself to death. With the well-honed instincts of a Vegas bookie, he coolly estimates that the process of self-destruction should take no more than four to six weeks, if he does it right.

But Ben, like a fellow sufferer, Dylan Thomas, is not going to go gentle into that good night, nor will Ben do so alone. On the Vegas strip during his first night in town, he nearly runs over Sera (Shue) a high-priced call girl with more than a few problems of her own, among them an extreme case of denial and low self-esteem, for which she’s in therapy (since these scenes are shot in close-up , from the therapist’s point of view -- like those in Klute -- and her therapist is never seen, the audience has to assume that either she’s in therapy or that she’s gone potty and has taken up talking to the walls). As if this weren’t enough to ruin one’s day, Sera’s pimp, Yuri (Sands, in a performance that always threatens to careen headlong into the ridiculous), is a psychopathic Russian émigré with a nasty habit of carving her up when she doesn’t have the requisite amount of cash on hand the morning after (it’s all right, though, because, according to Sera, Yuri at least has the courtesy to leave his marks where they are least likely to interfere with business). After spending the night with Ben, Sera, flush with what has to be a bad case of latent maternal instinct and pity, asks him to move in with her (Yuri might have had something to say about this domestic arrangement, but he has meanwhile been conveniently dispatched to another, more appropriate, land of opportunity by some of his "business associates"). Sera makes this offer presumably because it is better to die accompanied than alone, though one wonders just which one of the two is likely to die first. She even seems to accept his new life plan with relative calm, bestowing a silver-plated flask upon him the day that he moves in as proof of her good will Ben’s response: he has found the right kind of woman. The first time he enters Sera’s apartment, Ben notices some artwork on the wall with some sort of angelic being at its center. Ben, who sighs with contentment at this positively portentous symbolism (assuming that one could refer to portents in a positive fashion) proclaims Sera to be his angel, and then proceeds to head straight for his own personal hell. Of course, Sera, being an angel of mercy, starts having second thoughts about this assisted suicide arrangement, attempts to "save" him, and , as a result, her life begins to unravel in tandem with Ben’s.

If your tolerance for greyish, if not completely black, humor is reasonable, there is no doubt that the first hour of Leaving Las Vegas is both funny and touching, because the central performances are strong. Cage builds on his usual goofy screen personality by layering it with cynical irony; granted, he’s a rather dipsy dipso (shades of Dudley Moore in Arthur come to mind at times), but one with an edge that he applies with equal glee to both himself and others; he’s so off-center that most of the suspense in this film comes from not knowing which way the knife will swing. Cage’s performance never lets the audience remain unknowing of the almost unfathomable depths of pain that rule Ben, yet he refrains from the usual hyperbolic method of depicting alcoholism, otherwise known as the "D.T.s-and-bugs-on-my-body" syndrome, or perhaps the "Lost Weekend" syndrome (after Billy Wilder’s 1945 classic); it helps that Ben never really runs out of liquor during the course of the film. While not attempting to make light of the absolutely miserable state of withdrawal that all drug addicts must endure, the traditional and nearly exclusive cinematic emphasis upon the bender as the only characteristic of alcoholism may be narratively exciting, but it is a distorted view of the alcoholic’s progress. To his credit, director Figgis resists the urge to exaggerate alcoholism’s more graphic symptoms; rather, he gives the audience a thorough examination of alcoholism’s more mundane and chilling underside. As the disorder chips away at Ben ever so gradually and yet so inexorably and so obviously, Figgis demonstrates how others are invited to take advantage of Ben as much as he does himself, and to assist him in his destruction. Figgis clearly encapsulates the humiliation, compromises and deceptions that embody the life of an alcoholic, and the apparent inability to cope with this past life was apparently played out in a tragic extratextual coda to the film: author O’Brien committed suicide just before the film was released.

Shue’s work in this film is also incredible -- she gives a performance that is wonderfully complex and layered. On the surface, Sera is a lady with attitude; the first time the audience sees Sera, she dents Ben’s car for nearly running her over. When Ben meets her again, she drives a hard bargain for her services. Sera negotiates the garish streets of Las Vegas like a panther on the hunt, not so much strutting on her five-inch heels as prowling with an easy grace. Part of her scrappiness comes from her knowledge, confided to her therapist, that her status as a highly-prized sexual performer comes from the ability to be whatever the customer wants her to be. Such an assessment would appear to be somewhat self-evident (men don’t, after all, tend to seek out prostitutes in order to act out the prostitute’s fantasies), but Sera knowledge is, the audience is supposed to discern, innate rather than learned, thereby setting her apart from the competition. It’s a pity that this sexual chameleon is skilled only at discerning other’s needs, because, through her various therapy sessions, it becomes evident that she doesn’t seem to have a clue as to what is best for herself. Her ignorance is frightening, because it emerges ever so gradually, and Shue makes Sera give her narrative in such a carelessly naive tone, thereby adding to an already indelible perception that this woman is most assuredly heading for her own personal hell, if not through her career "choice" then most assuredly through her own nature. The effect, thanks to Shue’s understated work, is not unlike watching a terrible accident unfold and being powerless to stop it. Sera, unbeknownst to her, is Ben’s female counterpart; the fuse on her time bomb is only slightly longer, and the effects of the damage aren’t as clear-cut, but the destructive capabilities are no less potent.

Unfortunately, these very immaculate portrayals are eventually undermined by a narrative which eventually lets these two performers down, leaving them floating around with very little to do. Part of the difficulty stems from the shape of the narrative itself; after your main character has decided to drink himself into oblivion, there’s very little suspense left, and all the audience can do is stand back and watch. This is not necessarily a problem by itself, but Leaving Las Vegas then commits the worst sin that a "social problem" film can: it attempts to impose a sense of wistful regret over Ben’s fate, rather than letting the audience come to that state of mind on its own. Forcing the situation to a premature head isn’t the wisest thing a filmmaker can do with this type of film; when you suck out the self-deprecating wit and substitute only a lame martyrdom in its place, the narrative flow tends toward death from slow suffocation. Leaving Las Vegas is no exception to this rule. Initially, Ben’s self-destruction is interpreted as some sort of presumably noble quest after encountering what he believes to be insurmountable failure. His "control" over his life, if you will, is at least buttressed in the beginning by a strong sense of humor that isolates him from society; he may be a self-destructive drunk, the film seems to tell us, but at least he’s got a goal and a strong will. By the end, the film doesn’t seem to believe its own stated convictions, or perhaps can’t face up to the implications of this initial position once the nastier aspects of alcoholism and its effects on the relationship between Ben and Sera become more concrete. By the end, Ben is killing himself although he doesn’t want to and doesn’t really have the nerve to do it. Unfortunately, the situation isn’t fraught with any tension, and just meanders miserably to its logical conclusion (the process, in fact, began to grate on my nerves so much that I felt like shipping Ben a case or two of Stoli at my own expense in order to speed it up).

As for Sera, her character degenerates from complex vulnerability into that tired old construct known as the "whore with a heart of gold." At this point, the audience is supposed to infer her motivation from the memories of old films rather than the film it is currently watching, because character development goes right out the window. As she becomes more involved in Ben’s problems, this discrepancy between public persona and psychological inadequacy leads her to take her own self-destructive journey through careless mistakes, but her plight, like Ben’s, generates less pity than contempt. The deficiency in characterization is not helped any by Figgis’ use of frequent, self-conscious, lapses into slow motion as a means of emphasizing that something is relevant with a capital "R" (which is not to say that the evocative cinematography by Declan Quinn is in any way less than perfect). What should have ended up as a tragic and sordid tale about the limitations of human will instead becomes nothing more than a remaindered pastiche of cinematic clichés about alcoholics and prostitutes, with all of its goodness drained to the last drop long before the last frame. For want of a sense of empathy, the audience ends up having the D.T.s in Ben’s place.

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