“Leaving Las Vegas” is a four-star performance in a three-star movie. It’s a should-be beauty pageant winner whose stuck wearing a discount dress from Kohl’s. There’s no shame in “Leaving Las Vegas” being good, but it’s cruel that this heartrendingly unique film didn’t reach its true potential because of creative mishaps.
The 1995 gem, which netted Nic Cage his first and only Oscar win, was written, directed, and had its music supervised by Mike Figgis. On screenplay counts, Figgis knocks it out of the park, crafting a wholly believable but then undiscovered tale of twilight tragedy based of John O’Brien’s novel. Figgis also performs exemplary though not masterful work that only heightens and never detracts from the raw emotion at hand. His music, though, is certainly inspired, but sadly by benevolent, overbearing jazz forces.
In moments of silence, we learn about Cage’s character Ben Sanderson, a down-on-his-luck screenwriter whose penchant for booze has driven away any love from his family and Hollywood. Sanderson burns all remnants of La-La-Life and high-tails it to Sin City, devoting his self-proclaimed final days to an epic bender that would make Vegas boozehounds swap for a pint of milk instead. While navigating the littered sidewalks of the Strip, Sanderson bumps into Sera (Elizabeth Shue), a well-meaning prostitute crippled by loneliness and desperate for any semblance of a normal relationship or life.
Their fractured pasts make Sanderson and Sera kindred spirits, at least that’s what Sera believes. While she falls head over stiletto heals for Sanderson, he only occasionally replicates her warmth, still possessed by his primary motivator of getting belligerent. Even in scenes when the two seem relatively happy, there’s always an aura of doom lurking behind the slots off screen, a perennial countdown to Sanderson’s next fuck-up or Sera’s next knuckle sandwich from an abusive out-of-towner.
It’s a story ripe with catharsis, pathos, and bright light brutalism, a sparkling conduit of emotion that never reaches its full amplitude because of the overbearing soundtrack. When Sanderson and Sera walk side-by-side, they’re accompanied by the blaring vocals of what sounds like a Freemont street lounge singer crooning to old ladies at the buffet bar. Figgis might as well have hired Tony Bennett to just sing the world “melancholy” in different pitches and tempos over and over during these scenes and they’d have the same effect.
It’s a shame, because film scores and soundtracks are easy, natural methods of amplifying emotion and dramatic tension we already understand on-screen. Rarely do we ever wish James Gunn had used a different 70s hit in “Guardians of the Galaxy,” or Scorsese a different Rolling Stones track in any of his mafioso masterpieces. “Leaving Las Vegas” is a reminder of the fallacies that happen one person has too much creative control on a movie. More than that, it makes us appreciate the craft of film scoring and supervising, and recognize the tragedy of when bad scoring cools what should have been a simmering story.