Who the hell wants to see a movie about a Vegas hooker who finds time between rough trade to fall for a screenwriter bent on taking the last booze train to oblivion? You do, if you want to experience a uniquely hypnotic and haunting love story sparked by Nicolas Cage and Elisabeth Shue at their career best. The film, directed by Mike Figgis from an autobiographical 1991 novel by John O’Brien, is a tragedy that unspools with astonishing buoyancy and sneaky wit, as if no one told the lovers their story should be depressing.
Cage plays Ben, a guy coming apart in the Hollywood that made him. His agent pals, Peter (Richard Lewis) and Marc (Steven Weber), talk about the latest “Dicky Gere project” while Ben busts in to cadge a handout for drinks. Ben is pathetic, though Cage lets us see the character’s innate charm. Ben’s boss even fires him with reluctance in a scene that’s painful to watch, since Ben, knowing he’s past the point of holding a job, is embarrassed by having forced his boss to lower the boom. Ben heads for Vegas, where drinking, like gambling, is round-the-clock, and few would notice a man killing himself in a crapshoot with the bottle.
Sera notices. She takes in this staggering, lost puppy and ministers to him with the money she earns from tricks. Shue is a revelation in the role. Nothing in her previous work, mostly ingenues from The Karate Kid to Cocktail, prepares us for her no-bull toughness and resiliency as Sera. She meets Ben at about the same time she wins freedom from her sadistic Latvian pimp, Yuri (Julian Sands at his most unwashed and creepy).
Admittedly, this setup sounds TV-movie familiar and offputting. All signs point to another 12-step clichTfest complete with agonizing therapy and gut-wrenching rehab before the final fade to redemption. This has been the movie drill from the reformed addicts of The Lost Weekend and Clean and Sober to the repentant hookers of Klute and Pretty Woman. To its everlasting credit, Leaving Las Vegas refuses to conform. No back story spells out Sera’s career as a call girl. A few hints are dropped about a marriage in Ben’s past, though no connection is made between his past and his drinking. Ben and Sera accept each other as is. He swigs; she screws — it’s what they do. The occasional bartender or cabbie may express dismay at two attractive young people hurtling toward self-destruction; Ben and Sera do not. When he’s not cramped, puking or impotent from drink and she’s not working the streets or getting battered by brutal frat boys (“I wanna put it up your butt”), each shows a mutual caring and tenderness that meets their definition of love.
Although O’Brien committed suicide two weeks after signing the deal to turn his novel into a film, Leaving Las Vegas refuses to trade on sentiment or bogus profundity. Figgis, the gifted British director of Stormy Monday and Internal Affairs, treats the film as a jazz piece (he composed the evocative musical score) that resounds with an ardent defiance of despair. Figgis has crafted a powerful and affecting film that gains resonance from cinematographer Declan Quinn’s unhackneyed take on Vegas’ neon jungle and editor John Smith’s keen alertness to subtle shifts of emotion.
In one scene by a motel pool, Sera sits on Ben’s lap, removes her swimsuit top and pours champagne over her breasts to entice him to her body with alcohol. It’s the movie’s saddest joke, ending in disaster when Ben falls over and shatters a glass table that leaves him cut, bruised and bleeding. The moment illustrates the fragility and stamina of their relationship as Ben picks himself up, and Sera licks his wounds.
The film’s bleak final scenes are hard to endure and impossible to shake. You can’t take your eyes off these actors. Shue shuns the usual whore bromides to create a woman who holds to her emotions even as the ground shifts under her tottering high heels. And Cage gives a blazing performance that cuts through Ben’s alcoholic haze to reveal a startling sweetness and clarity. Is the film a metaphor for doomed romance in an age of AIDS and lethal addiction? Cage and Shue make it something more visceral and immediate: a cry from the heart.