Critics' Corner

Desson Howe - Weekend section, "Will leave you terribly moved."

Rita Kempley - Style section,
"Spills sweet and dark."

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Nicolas Cage received an Oscar as best actor in 1995 for his role in this film.

'Leaving Las Vegas'

Scene from this movie

An acute alcoholic called Ben has driven into the gambling city to drink himself to death. He meets Sera, a high-priced hooker who's in emotional bondage to her Russian pimp.

They move in together, in a partnership of convenience. She goes out for her lucrative business encounters, passing the cash to her moody, abusive employer. Ben stays home and drinks. -- Desson Howe Rated R

Director: Mike Figgis
Cast: Nicolas Cage; Elisabeth Shue;
Julian Sands
Running Time: 1 hour, 52 minutes
Filmographies: Nicolas Cage ; Elisabeth Shue

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Viva 'Las Vegas'

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
November 10, 1995

In "Leaving Las Vegas," an acute alcoholic called Ben (Nicolas Cage) has driven into the gambling city to drink himself to death. He meets Sera (Elisabeth Shue), a high-priced hooker who's in emotional bondage to her Russian pimp. In this high-rolling purgatory of losers and users, these two cling to each other like lost souls.

"You can never, never ask me to stop drinking," Ben tells Sera, when it becomes clear they are tumbling into a relationship. When Sera agrees, it's a moment of intoxicating liberation for them and us.

In most Hollywood movies about alcoholism, the miracle cure for the disease is moral backbone-usually coupled with unwavering support from a loved one. But in writer/director Mike Figgis's unremitting, touching film, we're not roiled with false suspense about whether Ben will beat back the addiction monster. When Ben and Sera take their voluntary downward spiral, there is no turning back, only new and powerful understandings between them.

When the story begins, Ben is in transition, as usual. Thanks to almost perpetual drunkenness, he's blown yet another job, the latest in a movie production office. But this time, he decides to give up the Sisyphean struggle with society for good. Blitzed as always, he rides into Vegas, where he meets Sera by almost running her over (the closest thing to a public service message you're going to get). After her cold rebuke, and his half-hearted proposition (alcohol is his real lady of the evening), an understanding springs up.

It isn't long before they move in together, in a near-platonic partnership of convenience. She goes out for her lucrative business encounters, passing the cash to her moody, abusive employer (Julian Sands). Ben stays home and drinks. He doesn't sip or savor his poison. He pours it down his throat as if he's filling a car with 30-weight oil.

What keeps the film (adapted from the late John O'Brien's harrowing semi-autobiographical book) from being completely unbearable are the extraordinary performances. With his hollow eyes and greenish pallor, Cage is, variously, amusing, sad, frustratingly self-destructive and vital. The helplessness is aching and palpable when, in one scene, he has to sign a check, and his shaking, temporarily sober body is incapable of this simple transaction. Then, after a quick trip to the nearest watering hole restores his swagger, he's the life of the party-as only Cage can be.

Shue, who many will remember as the sweet-natured heroine of "Adventures in Babysitting," carves herself a new, dynamic career path. Gutsy and tender as Sera, she provides striking counterpoint to her partner's ravaged personality.

Director Figgis, who created the atmospheric and personal "Stormy Monday" before turning to the Hollywood hack work of such movies as "Internal Affairs," "Mr. Jones" and "The Browning Version," seems to have rediscovered his creative freedom. The unrestrained liberation brings only minor shortcomings. The story's punctuated, for instance, with documentary-style interviews with Sera, as she recounts her relationship with Ben, presumably to an off-screen psychiatrist. The technique draws too much attention to itself and doesn't add much to the movie. But it's also a useful break from the intensity. "Leaving Las Vegas" is not one of those triumph-over-affliction movies you're supposed to stand up and cheer for. But it is one of the most powerful, honest pictures of the year, and will leave you terribly moved.

Leaving Las Vegas (R) - Contains disturbing scenes of drunken behavior and emotional intensity, as well as some violence, and sexual scenes.

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A Stiff Drink of Reality

By Rita Kempley
Washington Post Staff Writer
November 10, 1995

"Leaving Las Vegas" spills sweet and dark from the same bottle as "Barfly," "The Days of Wine and Roses," even "Arthur." It may be a study in strong drink and self-destruction, but it also has something to say about love between grinding hangovers.

Mike Figgis, whose films include "Internal Affairs" and "Stormy Monday," wrote and directed this bravura adaptation of the late John O'Brien's novel about a suicidal drunk besotted with a street-smart hooker. Potentially a pair of walking cliches, Nicolas Cage and Elisabeth Shue bring enormous warmth and charm to lost souls Ben and Sera. Their artistry and deep affection for their characters make their tragedy bearable, though it's fairly clear from the outset that Ben, especially, isn't going anywhere but down.

When he leaves L.A. for Las Vegas, Ben, an alcoholic who is hardly in denial, has lost everything but his urge for another bottle, his severance pay and the will to die. His goal is to drink himself to death in four or five weeks. In one of his more lucid interludes, he hires Sera, who is drawn to his vulnerability and self-deprecating humor. A few days later, she demonstrates her heart of gold by inviting him to move into her apartment.

He agrees to the arrangement provided she doesn't interfere with his drinking. In return, he promises not to stand in the way of her whoring. In a scene that's 100-proof O. Henry, Sera gives him a silver hip flask bought with last night's earnings. Ben, already in awe of her kindness, is humbled by her unconditional love.

If this were a melodrama like "When a Man Loves a Woman," Sera would recognize her role as a co-dependent and Ben would join AA. But this is an unflinching tragedy; Figgis doesn't cheapen it by preaching the evils of Demon Rum. And while Sera's frequent monologues to an off-screen shrink provide some insight into her motivations, the psychiatrist never offers an easy, pop diagnosis.

"Leaving Las Vegas" doesn't go down smooth, but it doesn't promise to. It topples cliches and flies in the face of Hollywood endings. Though most movie love affairs bring redemption, Figgis's offers a little comfort. Like one for the road.

Leaving Las Vegas is rated R for nudity, profanity, drug use, rape and other sex acts.

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