Today I watched Leaving Las Vegas, directed by Mike Figgis in 1995. It's not a happy movie, but it still has traces of optimism. There is something good that can be found even in extreme depression. The film is wonderful, with a realistic portrayal of alcoholism and other tough issues. It's not wonderful because it made me feel happy afterward, but because I could see that it was real. It deals with ugly, painful, topics, and they are often tough to watch. I really applaud the film for showing this side of the issue. I am not a big Nic Cage fan, either. I sort of hate Nic Cage. I have been mislead by Ebert to see Nic Cage films before, but here, he could act! That is something else, really.
The movie is about Ben, a screenwriter and an alcoholic. He is fired from his job, and agrees that he should be fired. That tells you a lot about his self-destruction. He heads to Las Vegas to drink himself to death, where he meets Sera, a prostitute, who falls in love with him. It is not easy to watch a movie like this very often, because it is awful to see people destroy themselves. But, there is something that is really masterful about the fact that the film addresses this issue in such a realistic way. There is no sense of fun binge drinking here. There is Ben, shaking, forcing himself to drink more so he can function. This is the ugly, but real, face of alcoholism, and while it is unpleasant, it is not unrealistic or fantastical. It also shows the reality of sex work. What do you do when the money you would earn at a normal job cannot compete? How do you protect yourself when what you do is frowned upon and you suffer just for your profession?
Like I said above, I am not a Nic Cage fan. One of the biggest surprises in this film, for me, is that Nic Cage can act. He really gives all of himself for this performance. He is at times tragic and at times funny, and he really gives us a full range of emotion. It is, by far, the best thing I have ever seen him in. I can see why Ebert might have a little bit of an obsession with him, after watching this. His makeup made him ugly and sick looking, and he just was a great embodiment of the character. It was difficult and painful to watch at times, but you could see why Sera liked him. It was great, and I never thought I would say that about Nic Cage, ever.
As a fan of tragic movies, I liked how haunting and sad this was. It was even more haunting once I read Ebert's review and realized that not only was this based n a true story, the author killed himself after he found out his novel was going to become a film. It makes sense to me that there was a true aspect to this film - it is hard to come up with that sort of self-destruction. It had to be real. Ben actually understands what his is doing, but is determined to go through with it. I personally feel it is more realistic to show a character who is aware of the consequences of his actions but yet unable to stop.
Spoilers ahead. I have to call out Ebert on his review, though. I bristled when I read his depiction of Sera's rape. He claimed she was "so unwise that we read it as deliberately self-destructive" (Great Movies II, 244-245). I cringed when I read this. I didn't think that it was anything other than rape. She went with the drunken men, yes, but that is not an invitation to rape. She realized, once in their room, that they were not going to be what she expected. She tried to leave, but they beat her instead. I didn't see this as self-destruction. It was just rape. I feel frustrated that Ebert seems to gloss over issues like this. People make bad choices, but it doesn't mean they want the outcome that happens to them, especially something like this.
Overall, I loved the movie. Ebert's doofy comments sort of put me in a bad mood, and made me maybe less-enthusiastic of the film than I would have been before. Let's just hope he never ends up on a jury, I guess. Nic Cage is amazing, a sentence that feels strange to write. The story is great and it is real, although it is depressing. I didn't expect much from this movie, to be honest, but I was so surprised by it. I liked the bleak message, I loved the acting, and I was sucked into the whole plot. It could have easily been a happy, stupid move like Pretty Woman, but instead, it was honest, and that is amazing. I love this movie, and I hope that if you check it out, you love it, too.
Ebert's Great Movie Essay on Leaving Las Vegas
Buy it on Amazon
Disturbingly optimistic trailer: