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When Something in Your Life Has Been Destroyed -- you have several paths you can follow. You can draw on whatever strength you may have inside you to pull yourself over the crisis; you can choose to disappear until the time comes when you are ready to reemerge like the proverbial phoenix from the ashes; or you can self-destruct all on your own.
Which is the path Ben Sanderson (Nicolas Cage) chooses in Leaving Las Vegas, a disturbing character study of two people faced with that choice.
When we meet Ben, he is already known to his Hollywood colleagues (he is a film writer) as a drunk. They feed his habit with cash to keep him out of their faces. The reason for his state is only hinted at and is, at the end of it all, secondary to the story. His employer lets him go, handing over an envelope containing a very generous severance. Ben decides to spend it all on himself, by heading to Las Vegas and drinking himself to death.
In Vegas, while drunk behind the wheel, he almost runs over a hooker named Sera (Elisabeth Shue), who's got her own image problems. But Sera will take Ben in, accept him for what he is, and let him drink himself to death.
It's a kind of '90s "love me for what I am, not what you want me to be" love story.
Leaving Las Vegas is not the kind of movie you go to in search of a developing story line or some kind of surprise. What it is is what it is, and that is laid out clearly from the start. You may wish that Cage's character finds solace and redemption in the company (and sometimes arms) of Shue, but neither character has that fantasy.
This is the kind of role an actor jumps into, trying to create a full character out of very little. Why is Ben on the road to destruction? The hints are dropped -- he's lost his woman and child, but we don't know how or why. Sera has moved from L.A. to Vegas to escape her pimp, but when he finds her, she returns to him.
Nothing changes. Everything stays the same. An ever-spiraling downward path to destruction. Shue's character, in analysis, reveals her ongoing optimistic streak. Why, then, is she enamored of the alcoholic puddle that almost runs her down with his car on a dark Vegas night? Hell if I know.
Two pathetic characters in pathetic circumstances in a tiny little nothing of a story. It is only the remarkable work of Cage and Shue that make it worth sitting through Leaving Las Vegas. In Cage's performance, every once in a while you will see glimpses of what the sober character (and I do mean "Character" -- all bells and whistles going off) was like. In Shue's performance we see a woman who wants better, but just doesn't know how to do any better. So she rationalizes up the hilt. Prostitution is just a job involving sex. "Real sex" with the "real" Sera is infinitely better, which is what she promises Ben if he could only sober up long enough to find out.
Ladies and Gentlemen, consider this: If you were truly in love with a person who had a major problem, would you not make EVERY EFFORT to help that person and eradicate the problem?
Ben tells Sera he is an alcoholic and he is going to die and that is not going to change. Sera tells him that it's okay. And as the film proceeds she professes, and continues to profess, her love for him. Until he dies.
Which is not the sign of a well-developed story. Either there is Failure, or there is Salvation, but there is always Effort. Perhaps someone out there who has shelled out the full ticket price for this thing can answer the question "WHY does Sera do this?" for me.
Because it's the one question that kept popping into Cranky's head again and again and again throughout the last half of the film. Leaving Las Vegas is a powerfully acted nothing of a story. It will leave you asking "why" as you walk out of the theater. Unless you are wiping tears from your eyes, as many of the women in the theater with me were.
If I were cynical, on top of being Cranky, I'd tell the guys out there "Hey guys! GREAT date movie!" But I attend movies with real, paying audiences. I report what I observe. As for me, great acting can only go so far. Leaving Las Vegas falls completely on the shoulders of Elisabeth Shue, to give the story momentum and development. And I will repeat, Shue and Cage do a tremendous job. But there is only so much you can do when it's not in the script. And it's not in the script.
On average, a first run movie ticket will run you Eight Bucks. Were Cranky able to set his own price for Leaving Las Vegas, he would have paid . . .
On a personal note, Cranky is not ignorant of the feelings one goes through when "Something in Your Life Has Been Destroyed." I've been there. I've had to make the choice. And it is a sign of Nicolas Cage's fine performance that I have nothing but contempt for the character he portrays.
And maybe some day I'll tell you about it. But not today.
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