Picks and Pans Review: Leaving Las Vegas

updated 11/06/1995 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/06/1995 AT 01:00 AM EST

Nicolas Cage, Elisabeth Shue, Julian Sands

This movie is the best love story of the year. It is also the bleakest. Its main character (Cage) is an alcoholic whose nonstop tippling has cost him his family, friends and job as a Hollywood screenwriter. So he heads to Las Vegas with the specific intention of drinking himself to death. There he becomes involved with a prostitute (Shue), a woman who prides herself on giving fair value for the money. ("For $500, you can pretty much do whatever you want," she tells a client. "Just keep it out of my hair. I just washed it.") Despite finding each other, Cage stays on the booze and Shue on the stroll. Pretty Woman this is not.

Leaving, rather, is a harrowingly dark look at two very damaged people who briefly share some laughs and take solace in being needed by each other. One refreshing thing about the movie, based on an autobiographical novel by author John O'Brien (who killed himself last year, two weeks after signing the film deal), is that it doesn't spell everything out or offer pat explanations. We are not told why Cage drinks or how Shue ended up hooking. This is in keeping with the film's edgy cinema verité look and feel, which director-screenwriter Mike Figgis (Internal Affairs) achieves by using grainy Super 16 film stock and hand-held cameras.

Cage is so convincing, you can almost smell his 110-proof breath. He plays his self-destructive character as smart, droll ("Looks like I'm with the right girl," he tells Shue after she presents him with a silver flask as a gift), and as truly wanting to die and be done with it. Shue is equally good, alternately tough and tender—and a revelation here after her pink-bunny roles in such teenybopper hits as The Karate Kid, Cocktail and Soapdish.

There are cameos by Laurie Metcalf, Richard Lewis and Valeria Golino—and Julian Lennon shows up playing a bartender.

Leaving Las Vegas is a raw and wrenching trip, but one worth taking. Just don't expect to relax with a drink afterward. (R)

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