Self-loathing in Las Vegas

A brilliant film, a hymn to self-destructiveness: Mike Figgis is back and on form.

LEAVING LAS VEGAS Mike Figgis (18)

The hero and heroine of Leaving Las Vegas, Mike Figgis's beautiful and preposterous new film, have an open relationship. He doesn't interfere with her career (prostitution), and she doesn't interfere with his ambition, which is to drink himself to death. She shows her acceptance by giving him a hip flask, and he makes an attempt at a similar gesture by giving her earrings, saying she should wear them when she is working. There's no great sexual current between them: when he wakes up in the morning (or whenever), it's a bottle he reaches for, with a swift, certain movement, not needing to look for it. Then she gets the bright idea of pouring Scotch languorously over herself. That seems to do the trick.

The first part of Leaving Las Vegas is certainly Figgis's most impressive piece of work - as stylish as Liebestraum, but blessed with the dynamism that was so sorely missed in that film. We see Ben (Nicolas Cage) in full alcoholic meltdown in Los Angeles, drinking his way out of friendships and jobs with a manic concentration that is sometimes bitterly funny. Chug-a-lugging vodka at the wheel of his car, he lowers the bottle out of sight for exactly as long as it takes for a highway patrolman to give him a long, hard look, and then raises it back to his lips.

Figgis's film language in this section puts us inside Ben's head without sacrificing crispness or pace. At one point he sings a little tune, and it coincides for that moment with the melody on the soundtrack, and somehow we are not surprised by this, though we should be. When he checks into a scruffy motel in Vegas called The Whole Year Inn, we share his moment of double-take when he reads the red neon sign as The Hole You're In instead.

The subjectivity of Sera (Elisabeth Shue) is established by different means. We see her talking about her life and her emotions to someone who is presumably a therapist, but whom we never see, and whose questions - if there were any - have been edited out. Clearly a decision has been made by the director (who also wrote the screenplay, based on the late John O'Brien's all-too-autobiographical novel) to decontextualise the characters' "problems" - prostitution and alcoholism - and to do without cheap psychologising.

The paradox of Leaving Las Vegas is that removing the cheap psychologising somehow doesn't stop it from remaining in force. We know right from the start that Ben in his exuberant despair is too good for this world - Figgis makes sure, for instance, that women react to him sympathetically from the first frame, however outrageous his behaviour. He plays his death wish to an audience, responding brightly to a pawnbroker who offers him a bad rate, "$500 for a '93 Rolex Daytona? I'll do it!" Cage's performance is funny and headlong, but perhaps it's a mistake to show him performing for an audience when the only audience is us, in a scene where Sera cooks him rice that he can't or won't eat. After she's left, we see him picking up ice cubes from his drink with chopsticks.

As for Sera - do I really need to spell out the phrase "tart with a heart"? She's drawn to Ben because he's the only man in town who wants her company, not her services. Even when he can hardly stand, he has a gallant match ready for her cigarette. Leaving Las Vegas is frank about bodily functions - Sera goes to the toilet in mid conversation, and there's a hilarious sequence of Ben singing a nonsense song while receiving her oral favours - but frank is not the same as truthful. Sera has an emotional self but not a sexual one: her desire for Ben seems to mean essentially putting him on her work rota. Wisely, Figgis has Shue throw away lines that too obviously sentimentalise self-destructiveness, lines like: "Between the 101 proof breath and the occasional drool, some interesting words fall from your mouth."

At the beginning of the film, there are some promising shreds of plot. Ben burns a photograph of himself with a woman and child which the camera returns to once or twice. Meanwhile, Sera is having a bad time with a Latvian pimp called Yuri - would you believe Julian Sands? - who earns a menacing bass note every time he is on screen (the director also wrote the music). But these hints of a developing story come to nothing, and Ben's downward trajectory goes on uninterrupted.

The film is carried by its incidental pleasures - at one point Ben seems to be parodying a recent shampoo advert by taking two bottles into the shower - and its minor characters, like a woman working at the Desert Song Inn who smiles so broadly while she speaks that it takes a while for Sera to realise just how much she hates these "screw-ups" with their loud talk and their damaged furniture. Deep down we know she is right. We are slumming it, despite the brilliance of the film, when we enjoy these people's wallowing and flailing.

Sid and Nancy was another film that portrayed a dysfunctional couple (to put it mildly) as somehow redeemed by an ideal, but the punk aesthetic of that film got a kick out of dragging love down to its characters' level. In Leaving Las Vegas the humour is all at the edges, and the presentation of doomed passion is po-faced, finally even maudlin.

Mike Figgis hides the hollowness with a sprinkling of in-jokes and unexpected cameos. Laurie Metcalf (from Roseanne, but also from Figgis's earlier Internal Affairs) pops up as a landlady. Figgis himself appears as a mobster and "in disguise" on an advert we see on top of every cab in the movie. He also finds time to play trumpet and keyboards on the soundtrack (there's a rumour that he made dim sum from scratch for the construction crew). The only real mistake he makes is to use Sting as "featured vocalist", though he is renewing a relationship that goes back to his first feature, Stormy Monday. The moment Sting opens his mouth to sing, you know he does two hours of yoga a day and regards his body as a temple. However many torch songs he sings, it's clear that self-destructiveness plays no part in his career plan.

n On release from tomorrow

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