Nicolas Cage plays Ben Sanderson,
an alcoholic screenwriter who drinks himself to death. The movie starts with
his old friends rejecting Ben and his boss firing him. We find that he is
divorced and does not see his child. He goes to his house and burns everything
that ever meant anything to him. He drinks and drinks. Finally, he sets off
to Las Vegas, knowing that it will be his last trip. There he meets a
prostitute called Sera (Elisabeth Shue) with a violent and unstable pimp. Ben
and Sera have a doomed romance.
I remember seeing Leaving Las
Vegas when it was originally released; it was depressing then, and I was
not really looking forward to seeing it again. On seeing it this second time, I found the
plot is every bit as unhappy as I recalled, but what stands out is the energy
and subtlety of Cage's performance. Too often in his career, Cage plays a
hoodlum or action hero, and he tends to be one-dimensional in those roles.
Here he is more interesting, both charming and utterly self-destructive. He is
an alcoholic and he has no intention of being anything else. Having accepted
who he is, he can relax and just get on the job of drinking until his body
expires. He's a sad and pathetic figure, and his loss of a will to live
despite having found love with Sera is heartbreaking.
There are well over a hundred
comments on Amazon.com about this film, and it is clear that most people either
love or hate it. Many of those who hated the movie criticize it for being
unrealistic about alcoholism, for the characters being unbelievable, or for
making the relationship into a clichéd love story. It is certainly not a
typical story of alcoholism, and few alcoholics rush to their own death with
such determination as Ben' character. The character of a prostitute with a
heart of gold is maybe a rather familiar one -- we have seen her in Pretty
Woman, for example. However, this is a very different sort of film from
most Hollywood productions. Figgis' and Cage together combine to make Ben's
alcoholism appalling, and one of the classic portrayals of drunks at the
movies. Cage's performance is gripping and even breathtaking. Make no
mistake: Ben is misogynist, hateful, a failure in every aspect of his life, crude,
and incapable of sustaining a relationship with anyone else. While he
maintains a sense of humor and occasionally a disarming humility, he is never
romanticized. Shue's performance as Sera is also remarkable, and she makes it
possible to understand how she might be able to relate to Ben. As a
prostitute, she cannot find a good relationship with a man, and men use her all
the time, so Ben's difference from other men is attractive to her.
Leaving Las Vegas is a
difficult seedy film to watch, and it isn't for everyone, but it stands the
test of time well. The lounge jazz and rhythm and blues sound track sets the
© 2006 Christian
Perring. All rights reserved.
Perring, Ph.D., is Academic Chair of the Arts & Humanities
Division and Chair of the Philosophy Department at Dowling College, Long Island. He is also editor of Metapsychology Online Reviews. His main
research is on philosophical issues in medicine, psychiatry and psychology.