Monday, September 18, 2006

Movie Review: Leaving Las Vegas

U.S. Release Date: 10/1/95
Running Time: 1:52
Rated: R (Profanity, violence, sex, nudity)
Cast: Nicolas Cage, Elisabeth Shue, Julian Sands

Director: Mike Figgis
Producers: Lila Cazes and Annie Stewart
Screenplay: Mike Figgis, based on the novel by John O'Brien
Music: Mike Figgis
Studio: United Artists


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Leaving Las Vegas is an unconventional love story to say the least. It isn’t your everyday romance—sprinkled with humor, flirtatious smiles, and dreamy kisses where the camera pans around the magical couple in question. This love story tells the tale of two torn souls, and although these characters are sometimes ugly, repellent, and beyond rehabilitation, the film still manages to absorb the viewer and invite serious wonder.

Benjamin Sanderson (Nicolas Cage) is a drunk. To paraphrase his words, he drinks because his wife left him, and his wife left him because he drinks. After Ben is fired and handed a compensation check from his boss, he heads straight for Las Vegas to drink himself to death, literally.

Once in the city of sin, Ben meets Sera (Elizabeth Shue); that’s “Sara with an ‘e,’ not with an ‘h’.” Between drinks, Ben is intrigued by Sera and her innate ability to walk into a room and become a person’s most desirable fantasy. Sera quickly realizes that Ben is a full-fledged alcoholic, and Ben soon learns that Sera is a hooker working for a dangerous Latvian pimp named Yuri (Julian Sands). Even so, the two find a deep solace in one another. Their faults are not criticized; their personalities are not dissected; and, their weaknesses are accepted.

In adapting the blatantly sexual, vulgar, and lamenting novel by John O’Brien (who committed suicide just as the film went into production), Mike Figgis does a phenomenal job. Likewise, behind the camera, Figgis simultaneously shows the breadth of a veteran director and the originality of an up-and-coming sensation. His use of blackouts, side-bar testimonies, and more make Leaving Las Vegas a highly-recommended, reflective selection of cinema. However, every rose has its thorn.

With Figgis also in charge of the music, Leaving Las Vegas loses its “masterpiece” quality. This is the prime example of how music can either accentuate a script or overcompensate. It this case, the repetitive tunes overcook the beauty of the film and cause more of a distraction rather than an enhancement of what’s already on screen. More specifically, it is evident that Figgis is a fan of Sting, Don Henley, and Michael McDonald, but to use the very same songs by these artists on multiple occasions is inappropriate. Yes, it is possible that Figgis was striving for the anthem/reprise feel, but for future reference, it is always wiser to vary your soundtrack and invest in augmenting an otherwise perfect screenplay.

The acting is in itself...flawless. As versatile as he is, Nicolas Cage is on the top of his game as Ben. Similarly, Elizabeth Shue throws her “babysitter” inhibitions to the wind and is able to emit a cloud of impurity and a world of beauty concurrently —much like how Julia Roberts did in Pretty Woman. Both deserved every accolade they received.

Again, Leaving Las Vegas is an unconventional love story. There is no happy ending—no closing slow-motion embrace. Instead, the film is dark, pessimistic, and yet so profoundly poetic. It can be described as the final binge of a divorcee or even read as the dark pages of a deprived prostitute’s diary. It is a brutally honest depiction of the dregs of Las Vegas and a film that is ugly in the foreground, yet gorgeous underneath. The best words to describe Leaving Las Vegas are: unremittingly bleak and exceptionally elegiac. See it. (***1/2 out of ****)


© Copyright Brandon Valentine 2006