Film review: Leaving Las Vegas

Published: Tuesday, Jan. 16 1996 12:00 a.m. MST

"I came here to drink myself to death."

That's the casual explanation of Ben Sanderson (Nicolas Cage), who comes to Las Vegas to do just that after his alcoholism destroys his life in Los Angeles.

And when he initially begins a relationship with a prostitute named Sera (Elisabeth Shue), who feels empathy for him, he warns her that she cannot dissuade him from his suicidal goal. The one thing she must never do, he explains, is ask him to stop drinking.

She agrees, and then goes out to buy him a present, a little celebration gift to seal the deal: a silver flask.

The film actually begins in Los Angeles, as we meet Ben while he is loading a shopping cart. But he's not getting groceries. He's buying bottle after bottle of various types of liquor.

Ben is a Hollywood wheeler-dealer whose habit has cost him dearly - his family, his ability to work, the respect of his peers and certainly his self-respect. So, when he concludes that there isn't anything left to live for, he heads for Las Vegas to spend a few weeks drowning himself in alcohol.

There, he meets Sera, who is drawn to his despair because she, too, is suffering - thanks to a less-than-respected line of work and a slimy pimp (Julian Sands). She doesn't have Ben's death wish, but she understands it.

You've no doubt read or heard much about "Leaving Las Vegas" by now, as it has been getting critical raves for a couple of months and is already dominating the awards scene in anticipation of Oscar nominations. And there is no question that both Nicolas Cage and Elisabeth Shue turn in stellar, Oscar-worthy performances.

Cage's unflinching, full-blooded portrait of a doomed man who knows precisely where he is, where he wants to go and how to get there is so raw and fierce that he is certainly a strong contender. Rarely has a performance about a character on the road to self-destruction been so powerful and touching at the same time.

But, of course, Cage has more to work with, as his character eclipses the usual cliches. Unfortunately, Shue's requisite hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold is required to embrace them.

Mike Figgis, who wrote the screenplay and directed (he also composed the jazzy soundtrack), is on the mark when he focuses on Ben's plight, exploring a non-judgmental relationship. But when he allows himself to be sidetracked by less interesting subplots, such as Sera's nasty Latvian pimp (Julian Sands) being dogged by Russian thugs, the film meanders and goes awry. Worse is a scene where Sera is gang-raped, however, as the film shifts from being morose to mean-spirited and brutal.

Without those central performances, it's hard to imagine the movie meriting this kind of attention.

"Leaving Las Vegas" is rated R for violence, rape, sex, nudity, profanity, vulgarity and drugs.