On my 22nd birthday last year, I got a little cocky with the vodka tonics and had to cut myself off from the bars at a cool 10:15. I also yacked all over my jeans, which I then tossed in the shower and left under the running water as I passed out on my bed. Oh how we laugh.
Life hasn’t been kind to Ben Sanderson (Cage), though he probably doesn’t realize that sad fact to its fullest extent on account of his crippling alcoholism. A failed screenwriter, Ben drops everything (burns it) and departs the City of Angels for Las Vegas, where he plans to indulge in a weeks-long suicidal binge financed by hocking his remaining assets. Somewhere in the midst of his sloshed joy rides through Sin City, Ben nearly bowls over Elisabeth Shue’s numbed hooker, Sera, with an ‘e,’ not an ‘h’ or an ‘a.’ Intrigued by his overflowing wallet and his refreshing hesitance towards intercourse, Sera takes Ben in and the pair begin an intimate, if a bit twisted, relationship. Of course, you can’t pair a psychologically-damaged streetwalker with a self-destructive alcoholic and expect this to end like a Julia Roberts movie.
Until Leaving Las Vegas’ final minutes, Ben is unaware of how just how deeply he’s fallen, yet he accepts what he is, maybe even relishes in it. Ben and Sera’s connection stems from that understanding, from accepting each other’s problems without taking fault. Passing no judgment. Their “twisted” relationship is also in many ways touching. Outside of a fictive space, ignoring a partner’s addiction or trauma seems like a fairly terrible thing. Here, director Mike Figgis elevates (sinks?) the ‘trust fall’ of a relationship. I’ll catch you, but I won’t stop either of us from falling.
As is probably obvious, mutual ignorance never lasts, and whether by one too many vodka showers or by diminished patience, we know where this is going from its hazy inception. But that fits with every relationship Sera and Ben have. Yes, Sera hardly models a legitimate career path, but even Ben’s sit-down with the big cheese plays out like a prescribed break-up scenario; I think we both knew this was coming. If there’s a corporate guide to letting go of the office lush, it’s probably laminated. Figgis shows us that a pair’s relationship can be really, really fucked up, but that isn’t so incomprehensible when their lives are really, really fucked up.
Even in my sad digital temple to Cage, I’d be remiss in ignoring that Elisabeth Shue anchors the crap out of this. Despite a life of violence and abuse, Shue sells it all with such simplicity, and that’s just as well because I’m not sure I could take bear to witness two zombified man-children. Cage goes from a coolly complacent time bomb to a drooling, infantalized, semi-mobile cadaver. Ben Sanderson is more ‘dead man coming’ than ‘dead man walking,’ at least before his violent shakes of withdrawal really set in. Early on though, he’s a pretty enrapturing sad sack:
I should be harsher on this film — or at least funnier– but Leaving Las Vegas is intoxicating in more ways than opening a window for a cliched pun. For one thing, the length of Ben’s binge is scattershot in its definition since so much of him is externalized. Car rides and their jigsawed timespans go down as quickly as their driver can glug his way through another handle of Beefeater, and apologies to Kenny G, but the elevator smooth jazz might have driven me to some mechnical pencil-inspired seppuku had it not been such a clever companion. At one point, Ben’s hums even directly match this banal muzack, because we’re hearing what he’s hearing, and if you dig what’s playing, you may have a problem.
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