It's unlikely that Mike Figgis's eloquent tragicomedy Leaving Las Vegas will be a smash hit down at the local AA chapter. Because this is one movie about alcoholism and the algebra of need that doesn't go in for sanctimony, self-help solutions or any kind of moral uplift in the final reel. The protagonist, a burned-out Los Angeles scriptwriter named Ben Sanderson (Nicolas Cage), is already at the end of his rope (and his career) when we meet him in scene one. After burning his most intimate belongings--passport, family pictures, books--his sole purpose in life is to drink himself to death with as much last-ditch joy as he can manage and with no regrets.
That Ben takes out for the neon wilderness of Las Vegas to do the deed is dramatic perfection in several senses: He understands that no one in hard-hearted Vegas is likely to try and stop him; he also knows that the bars are open 24 hours a day. If Ray Milland, the boozy hero of The Long Weekend, or Jack Lemmon, the businessman drunk of Days of Wine and Roses, had had the conveniences of Las Vegas at their disposal, things might not have turned out so well, or so sentimentally, for them.
Cage, who has long since proven to be one of Hollywood's most versatile and elastic actors, absolutely outdoes himself here. He essays the peaks and valleys of an intelligent, dedicated drunk--from buoyant charm to lurching low comedy to cold-sweat convulsions--with such frightening assurance that we start thinking he really was half in the bag (or more) throughout the shooting. For those who know the drill, meanwhile, Leaving Las Vegas will cut awfully close to the bone. Too shaky at 8 or 9 a.m. to endorse his last paycheck, Ben falls by a morning saloon for a couple of pick-me-ups, then strides back into the bank on a cloud of synthetic courage: "Steady as a fucking rock," he brags to the teller, then signs with a theatrical flourish. Down on the rivets, he hocks his Rolex with a shrug and a witticism.
It wouldn't do, however, to have Ben commit suicide in isolation. So novelist John O'Brien and writer/director Figgis--whose films range from the dark police corruption drama Internal Affairs to the handsome remake of The Browning Version--have provided Ben a soulmate. That Sera (Elisabeth Shue) is a street-hardened Las Vegas prostitute whose Russian pimp (Julian Sands) beats her up is to flirt with every pseudo-tragic cliche in Hollywood's well-worn catalogue. But these filmmakers and these actors transform the sludge of life at the bottom into something extraordinary: The love that comes to hold these two desperadoes together becomes so real that you can feel it in the pit of your stomach.
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Ben and Sera know better than to judge each other--that's the heart of their compact--and the movie knows better than to judge them. They just are. "You can never, never ask me to stop drinking," Ben says, and Sera immediately understands. For his part, Ben grasps Sera's kind of pained neediness: She's all alone, too. Alone in an anonymous crowd of tricks. For Shue, a Wellesley grad who played squeaky-clean in such films as Soapdish and The Karate Kid, this could be a breakthrough role: Her Sera is a mixture of knowingness and deep-spring vulnerability that moves way beyond the working-girl platitudes. You don't want to save her, or, if you're a man, be with her. You want her to be herself, just like she does.
Like much of Figgis's work--his credits also include Stormy Monday and Liebestraum--Leaving Las Vegas is dark and hip, but for Ben and Sera there are also some laughs and some authentic pleasures along the road to oblivion. Bluestockings obsessed with "evil" will be offended by the sheer satisfaction Ben takes in his self-destruction, not to mention Sera's unusual work habits and her pride in craft. Too bad for the bluestockings; they don't understand cocktail hour, either.
This is a grim, frequently depressing film that might take a little too much pleasure in its own down-and-dirty depravities. But when you hear these two voices--Ben's and Sera's--calling out through the ambiguities of adult life, you can't help recognizing the sound of truth. Herewith one of the most powerful, uncompromising films of the year, featuring--hands down, no contest--the two best acting performances. Cheers.