They always say that what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas, but this time, what happens in Vegas is finally breaking out, baby. Seriously though, Nicolas Cage is an alcoholic hanging out with a prostitute in Las Vegas, and that's... about right. No, that's all kinds of right, because something that crazy sounds like something that anyone would do in Vegas, as well as something along the lines of something that Cage would do anywhere. Well, this was still enough of a stretch for Cage to get the man an Oscar, probably because the Academy didn't realize back in 1995 that he would kind of go on to squander the honor with plenty of real-life craziness, although that's not to say that I didn't still thoroughly enjoy Cage's performance. I probably would have enjoyed it more if, he wasn't matched by Elizabeth Shue, not in this film, but in real-life right now. I presume Shue is herself something of an alcoholic, because while she's not turning out to be the big star she hoped she would be, Cage just keeps getting questionable work in which he does the same thing, only, you know, with much less acting material. Wow, working a little harder really does seem to get Cage and, by extension, a film with Cage a pretty fair distance, though not so far that you can past the film's own issues.
In so many ways, the film tries so hard to be unique, so much so that it all of the overt efforts to freshen things up tend to overshadow familiarity, but not wholly, for although this particularly interpretation of formulaic subject matter has plenty of inspiration to it, it's hard to completely disregard certain tropes to storytelling and even characterization. There's something a little too recognizable to the development of such characters as the eccentric alcoholic or the gold-hearted hooker, yet still not recognizable enough, as characterization and other forms of narrative development feel, not so much undercooked, but, if you will, uneven, underselling certain realist traits in order to thin out dynamicity to human depths, while overselling many histrionic traits in order to bloat romanticism. In other words, underdevelopment limits the layers to the depth of the narrative, and histrionics make it even more difficult to buy into questionable character traits and melodramatic conflicts, so as a character study, in a lot of ways, this drama is pretty messy, at least when it comes to Mike Figgis' script. Most every other aspect to the telling of this story is strong enough to thoroughly endear you to the questionably drawn melodrama, and really, even Figgis' script has a lot to it worth commending, maybe even praising, but characterization and dramatic depth remains thinned out, while other plotting elements go bloated, with excess material and meandering filler that quickly get to be repetitious, maybe even focused, particularly when the questionable story structuring devolves into being borderline abstractionist. What is not all that talked about is the fact that this is actually something of an art drama that has plenty of substance, but still has a tendency to get carried away with artistry, expressed through anything from a near-ethereal atmosphere, near-trippy visuals and stylish filming and editing, to an offbeat, intentionally disjointed narrative style that would be easier to get over if it was more realized. The film can't fully figure out the degree to which is utilizes its overblown artistic license, yet too often, that license is abused, maybe not to the point of plaguing the final product with a sense of pretense, but certainly to the point of having the final product get overambitious with its frantic storytelling style, thin characterization and melodrama, until finally collapsing as underwhelming. If the film was to settle down its questionable moves, then it would have rewarded pretty thoroughly, maybe even stood out, yet take that comment as more reflective of just how inspired the strengths are in this frequently flawed art melodrama, including certain stylistic ones.
The drama thrives on style, and while storytelling style is often questionable, other forms of style are perhaps consistently impressive, with visual style delivering on plenty of nifty and dynamic shots, complimented by cinematography by Declan Quinn which has a certain grime that captures the drama's bleakness, while still containing enough polish to compliment the dazzle of a Vegas setting that is itself complimentary of the groovy coloration to the film's tone that is further sold by an excellent jazz, swing and classic pop soundtrack. Yes, even musical style flavors things up, whether it feature the aforementioned lyrical tunes, or feature an original score by Mike Figgis that, I must say, is pretty outstanding, with tightly well-arranged jazzy compositions, as well as minimal classical pieces that are truly haunting, with a certain atmospheric warmth to it that transports you into the film's most effective moments as an art piece and drama. Needless to say, it's Figgis' directorial orchestration which really sells style in the context of substance as much as it can, for although Figgis gets way too carried away as an artistic storyteller, when his efforts go realized, stylish meditativeness draws you into the environment which is pretty prominently played upon, especially when dramatic heights come into play, resonating through a tastefully tender play on the haunting visual and musical style. Gritty, human and all around pretty profound in certain areas, this drama has moments - from moments of effectively sentimental breakthrough in the characters' personal and interactive shifts, to an admittedly disturbing final act - of realization to directorial storytelling that are often strong and sometimes downright outstanding, and while they're certainly few and far between in a final product that is generally kind of underwhelming, they still stand, reflecting what could have been a more solid interpretation of pretty solid subject matter. A meditation upon refusal to abate from self-destruction during the building of a meaningful, but rocky relationship, this film takes on a worthy, if familiar story, and not especially well, at least when it comes to a script by Figgis that is unevenly characterized, melodramatic and overblown, structurally and stylistically, yet still has elements to it that drive the heart of this drama, through certain cleverness, as well as an audacious attention to graphic content, both vulgarly reflective of grimy themes, and intensely reflective of heavy drama. There's a lot of ambition to this gritty drama, and although it's overblown to the point of being questionable, it begets certain inspiration in the offscreen performances, even if it's not as consistently effective as the onscreen performances, most every one of which is pretty solid, especially those by the leads, with the lovely Elisabeth Shue capturing the sense of frustration and revelation in a woman who finds a true connection with a human being she might not be able to tolerate watching fall apart, while leading man Nicolas Cage really stands out, not just with a trademark loony charisma that sells the over-the-top eccentricities of the Ben Sanderson character as well as it can, but with an startling anxiety to his physical and emotional acting that gives you a sense of mental and medical deterioration to a broken man looking to die as he lived: as an addict. Cage's remarkable performance is utterly devastating in its raw intensity, and if you have any doubt about the man's abilities as an actor, this film is an essential viewing, and while I very much wish that I could say that the project is just that when you look at it as more than just a vehicle for phenomenal acting, rather than an uneven and dramatically and artistically overblown pseudo-mess of a melodrama, the moments of considerable inspiration are well worth waiting for, even if the moments between them require plenty of patience.
When it is, in fact, finally time to leave, conventions are the far from the biggest thing you have to worry about in storytelling which goes plagued with uneven characterization, melodrama, repetitious structural excess, and questionable and even disjointed abstractionism to artistry, until the final product fails to achieve a rewarding status that it comes close to achieving on the wings of the haunting cinematography, colorful song soundtrack, beautiful score and gritty story - brought to life by heartfelt direction, audacious writing and sensational performances, particularly the soaring one by Nicolas Cage - that secure "Leaving Las Vegas" as a compelling and sometimes powerful drama, despite only coming to the brink of rewarding.
2.75/5 - Decent