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Leaving Las Vegas

Rated R, 111 min. Directed by Mike Figgis. Starring Nicolas Cage, Elisabeth Shue, Julian Sands.

REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Wed., Nov. 22, 1995

Leaving Las Vegas hits you like a breath of fresh air coupled with a 100-proof chaser. The movie is an amazing, bracing, funny, audacious, tender, and sobering piece of filmmaking. Few movies have ever dared to be this remorseless in their portraits of addiction -- in this case, alcoholism. Nicolas Cage plays Ben Sanderson, a hopeless drunk with no desire to quit and no overriding need to live. So, when his drunkenly rank behavior causes him to be let go from his Hollywood executive job, he takes his severance pay and gathers all his possessions and tosses some of it into large, plastic trash bags that he leaves at the curb and burns all the rest of his stuff, pulls his convertible out of the driveway and heads to Las Vegas, where he plans to drink himself to death. Hey, it's a plan. Ben has no regrets, creating a story that's quite different from all the alcoholism movies, like The Lost Weekend and The Days of Wine and Roses, that have come before. Ben can no longer remember if his wife left him because he drinks or if he drinks because his wife left. The first time we see Ben in the movie, he is gaily wheeling his shopping cart through the liquor store aisles, stocking his basket to the brim. Cage plays the part with complete abandon, creating a searingly immortal character. Part buffoon, part poet, part lout, and part angel, Ben is no easy character to pin down. Just when you think you're about to witness his sensitive side, he does something crass like plummeting through a glass table. In Las Vegas, he becomes taken with a $500-a-night hooker named Sera (Shue), who, in turn, takes a shine to him. Shue is wonderful in the role, surpassing any of the more wholesome work she's done before. Yet, her role is also one of the problems of the film. Though she's a good soul who is willing to accept Ben on his own terms for whatever brief time they may have together, she is essentially little more than the whore with a heart of gold. Even the movie's breakaway scenes of Sera talking to her therapist add little depth to the character and remind us far too much of Klute. Her story line also builds to a horrifying and disturbing climax, that really seems like an unnecessary sidetrack. Director Mike Figgis makes a valiant return to the tenor of some of his earlier and darker work like Stormy Monday and Internal Affairs, rather than the recent missteps he's taken with films like Mr. Jones and The Browning Version. Figgis also composed the soundtrack which is sung by Sting. I suppose it must also be mentioned that the novel on which the film was based was penned by John O'Brien, who committed suicide two weeks after learning that the book was bought for the movies. Leaving Las Vegas is redolent with cameos: Look for everyone from Richard Lewis to Carey Lowell to Bob Rafelson to Lou Rawls. Leaving Las Vegas is the kind of movie that feels like a terrific place to visit, but you know in your heart that you'd never want to dwell there.
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