Breaking Even in Vegas

Optimism is the chief cash crop of Las Vegas, and everything about the city--the seductive casinos, the fast marriages, the endless, artificial daytime--is carefully devised to cultivate it. What sets Ben (Nicolas Cage) apart from the millions of other people who go to Vegas is that he's not in the market for hope. When we last saw Cage visit Vegas, he was on a scary honeymoon; in Leaving Las Vegas, he's gone there to die.

In spite of the title, Leaving Las Vegas begins with Ben arriving there. He's a Hollywood screenwriter and producer whose alcoholism gets him fired. He's a well-liked man, and he gets a generous severance. So he heads for Vegas, with the simple plan of drinking there for the rest of his life. It isn't exactly a suicide attempt--he's just so committed to drinking that he's sure he'll die well before his cash runs out. His own estimate of life expectancy is four weeks. His intention is to leave Las Vegas feet first.

He rents a cheap room, stocks it up with inexpensive booze and throws himself into the project. But Lady Luck, apparently in an ironic mood, throws him a curve: He strikes up a relationship with Sera (Elisabeth Shue), a gorgeous young call girl already showing signs of hard wear, and she falls in love with him.

Fate intervenes again, this time freeing Sera from her pimp (Julian Sands). She invites the sodden Ben to move into her apartment. He's reluctant, but when she promises never to ask him to give up drinking, he agrees; he's desperately lonely and grateful for her company. As both his mental and physical health worsen, she falls for him all the harder.

That, basically, is the whole story, adapted by director Mike Figgis from a reportedly semiautobiographical novel by John O'Brien. The plot can be seen as the ultimate romantic fantasy of the veteran drunk--romantic not only in the sense that it's a love story, but also in the "glamorous" sense of the term. Ben is the most charming drunk imaginable; because drinking is what he cares about, he drops all pretense to the contrary. He has the wherewithal to finish his drinking before he becomes a bum on the street.

There is, of course, no hint that he might find help for his problem. The movie more or less endorses his view that his life is over, anyway: In a long prologue before the credits, we see Ben embarrassing himself in front of his horrified friends and colleagues, and we're supposed to see that if he stayed in Hollywood, this is all he'd do for the rest of his life. His decision to clear out seems meant to be seen as an act of dignity.

Add into this mix Sera, the Enabling Angel hooker who accompanies Ben as far as the gate of Happy Hour Valhalla, and you've got the perfect alcoholic wet-dream. Seen in these terms, it's easy to make a case that Leaving Las Vegas is a despicable movie. Its saving grace is that it's so spectacularly well-done in just about every respect.

Except for Sands as the glumly evil pimp (a Latvian!), no other actor is allowed much screen time. The heart of the film is a wistful duet of the two leads' performances. Cage's Prodigal Ben is intensely, heartbreakingly likable because the actor has the wisdom not to ask for our pity. He plays many of his scenes for sly comedy.

Having long since lost interest in his movie career, Ben is now onto something that really excites him: Seeing how much booze his body can take before giving out makes him cheerful. When Sera gives him the symbolic gift of a flask, he's hilariously touched--he just can't believe her thoughtfulness. He knows he's found his dream girl.

Because Ben is so blithely, dreamily comfortable with his hopelessness, Sera is left in mute agony. Shue, a pretty but forgettable ingenue of the mid-'80s, at last gets the chance to show what she can do, and she's superb. She makes us believe--with no strain--that she is a weary, hard-case hooker, and that she has found a true love at a particularly inauspicious moment in his life.

Figgis' direction creates the hazy quality of a long bender. His images are constantly slipping away from us--the film is all dissolves and fades-to-black. The chronology of events is often deliberately scrambled, as well; and the mournful jazz soundtrack, composed by Figgis himself and sung by Sting, is a lovely musical hangover.

This film about drunkenness and death is made and acted so confidently that you leave it feeling sober and invigorated.

Martin Scorsese's much-anticipated Vegas movie, Casino, is also a confidently made piece of work, but it isn't nearly so satisfying. Set in the '70s, it's a melodrama about the wise guys who call the shots behind the scenes in Vegas. Robert De Niro is a starry-eyed Jewish bookie from back East who's put in charge of a casino; Joe Pesci is his childhood friend, an Italian hit man and burglar; and Sharon Stone is the shiksa hustler for whom De Niro falls, and who, inevitably, comes between him and Pesci.

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