25 August 2009

I Watched It So You Don't Have To: Leaving Las Vegas

Leaving Las Vegas is a movie about the perils of drinking, but once it's over, the only thing you'll want to do is take a stiff belt of whiskey to make all the bad memories go away. I'm not quite sure that's what the filmmakers intended, but things don't always turn out how you want them to.

The film, if you don't already know by now, is about a raging alcoholic played by Nicolas Cage who gets fired from his job and heads to Las Vegas to drink himself to death. (SPOILER ALERT!) He succeeds. Along the way, he meets with prostitute Elisabeth Shue, and the two fall into an agonizing relationship of give and take, where she does all the giving and he does all the taking. Even though they fall in love with each other, she never really tries to stop him from drinking, and watches as he slowly (so, so slowly) poisons himself to death.

Drink faster!

It came out in 1995, a fact which the film constantly reminds you of through every single painful aesthetic choice it makes. It's not only the wretched bright colors of the era and the dated clothing, it's the wall-to-wall, oppresive soundtrack that will not stop telling you how you should be feeling via lite jazz caterwauling; the glittering effects of the opening credits, which look as trashy as Shue's character; the dreamy editing stuffed full of light flashes, choppy dissolves, and sped-up/slowed down sequences; and, most importantly, the presence of Julian Sands. The King of Creepy Europeans plays Shue's pimp, a refugee from Latveria who abuses her, yet is conveniently killed off by anonymous Russian (?) gangsters so that she can go off and devote all her time to Nicolas Cage's screenwriter.

Outside of the teeth-grinding aesthetic of the movie, the main reason it fails is because I never, not for one instance, bought the relationship between the two of them. It goes something like this: Cage arrives in Las Vegas and hires Shue for the night. She tries to have sex with him, but he's not interested in performing; he just wants someone to talk to. So she lays with him bed and listens to him talk all night, most of which we don't witness. And that's it. From then on, they've made a connection and they're in love. Why do I not believe this? Because the characters remain frustratingly one-dimensional, never becoming more than a stock type pushed to the Nth degree and run through the drama mill. It's the drunk and the hooker with a heart of gold given a movie all to themselves, and no one can do anything more interesting than freak out in a casino because of...I don't know. The alcohol, I guess. We're never given a better reason.

"Wanna see me flip over this table?"

If Nicolas Cage's character were an engaging person, or charming, we might be able to see why she falls for him. But he's not. In their initial scene together, he lays there and mumbles, and there's little-to-no chemistry between the actors to make us believe that they're a match. As it is, she does what she does because if she didn't, it would be a movie about a lone drunk all by himself, and would be even more blackly depressing. She goes so far as to invite him into her home and buy him presents. At that point, I said "Fuck you, movie. Right in your ear."

The movie tries to assuage your doubts by intermittantly cutting to Elisabeth Shue sitting in a room and talking to...her therapist? Herself? Who knows? She's just talking, and the only point of these scenes is to give us a glimpse into her character's mind and background, which somehow fails to develop her more as a human being. In those scenes, she gives us the typical hooker with a heart of gold complaints, and struggles to explain why she felt a connection with Cage. But she can't do it. You know why? Because there isn't one.

Leaving Las Vegas' fakeness stretches even to the look of Nicolas Cage's character. This is a man who gets a lengthy prologue where we see him attempting to maintain his life in Los Angeles while pounding vodka as he drives along the freeway. In one scene, he chugs down a bottle of liquor, causing him to have a violent physical reaction. Once he makes the decision to drink himself to death, he's pretty much all drunk, all the time. How does this massive, almost heroic amount of drinking manifest itself in his appearance? Red rimmed eyes. Occasional sweat and paleness. And that's it.

Of course, if they made him look too awful, then we might be even more disturbed by the already fucking disturbing ending. Throughout the entire film, Shue wants Cage to fuck her as a sign of their love, or something. Cage can never perform, and they have a brief falling out after he stumbles into a casino and brings home some other hooker. Then even more bad things happen to Shue so that she can hit bottom and reconnect with Cage when he's on his last go 'round. They manage to make extremely awkward, extremely out-of-place love in the brief moments before he dies. And then he dies. And then she's sad. And then the movie is blissfully over.

Did Cage deserve to win his Oscar for this movie? I guess so. He sure did seem drunk most of the time. It's a very good performance that doesn't have the writing to elevate it into something great. There certainly are the makings of a grand tragedy here, and given what happened to the author of the novel it's based on, there should be plenty of material to work with. Unfortunately, Leaving Las Vegas never goes much further than "I'm going to drink myself to death! [CONSUMES FIFTH OF GIN] So long world!" Credits.


  1. So, is it better, worse, or the same as the Sheryl Crow song? That's what the kids wanna know.

  2. Ah, the smell of Figgis in the morning.

  3. Lorin, I had no idea what song you were talking about it until I YouTubed it. Then I listened and said, "Oh, this song," but when the chorus came, I began to question whether I'd actually heard it before, or whether it just sounded like every other Sheryl Crow song. In conclusion, the movie is worse.

  4. You should have lived in my parents house from 94-96. You would have known it then.