Mmkay. Before I unleash my very top picks for Vegas flicks, I wanna do a round up of the rest out there.
In 1997, the Bellagio was still a year from opening its doors, and that meant that The Mirage was still the crown jewel in the Wynn empire, and Vegas was at the zenith of the family-friendly madness. In other words, it was the perfect setting for the Griswold family and their hijinks.
Vegas Vacation has pretty much every cliche, and that's what makes it so funny. Chevy Chase is the affable dad who gets the fever and goes off the rails and gambles away his family's savings, while his wife canoodles with Wayne Newton and his daughter becomes an exotic dancer and his son experiences the life of a high roller. It's some of the smaller touches that make this movie so funny, like when the family is having a relaxed breakfast and Chevy has to sneak away for a few minutes to secretly gamble, or, best, when he's huddled at the ATM, crazy-eyed, and the money starts pouring out as "All Along the Watchtower" thumps as the soundtrack. This movie captures the Mirage beautifully, the only detail missing is the unmistakable smell of pina colada as you enter the casino. But they even have Siegfried and Roy and their tigers prominently fixed into the plot. Ahh, better days.
When it comes to gambling fever, no one got a more fatal case than Julie Hagerty in Albert Brooks' hilarious Lost in America. It's 1985 and after Albert quits/gets fired, he decides to take his wife on the road a la Easy Rider, only in a Winnebago. But they make a hilarious and costly stop at the once brilliant Desert Inn where his wife gambles away all their money. Best? He then asks the casino for it back!
Barry Levinson took his second trip to Vegas in 1991 for the bio pic Bugsy. Unquestionably, Ben "Bugsy" Siegel was one of the most important architects of modern Las Vegas. Contrary to popular belief, he did not build the first hotel or casino in the desert. But what he did do with the Flamingo was bring it to levels previously unheard of which was the blueprint for what would come. He didn't see Vegas as a place for dusty gambling halls. His love for glamour made him want to make Vegas a sort of Hollywood-East, and his Flamingo would be the epicenter of luxury.
So if 40's Hollywood glamour is your game, Bugsy is your picture. Warren Beatty and Annette Bening look like they were created for this wardrobe and movie. And yet, like Vegas, all the glitz was covering some truly ugly aspects. Violent and nasty, both Bugsy and Virginia Hill were an awful lot to take, and this movie doesn't gloss over their despicable traits.
Levinson is a master filmmaker, and this picture is no exception -- character and plot twine together to make this movie riveting, and it's stamped with his classy touches even while the blood flows. And yet, Levinson has always had a touch of romantic and melancholy in his work, which is generally something I really like. But I guess maybe there's a gentleness about his films in general that puts this one at odds and somehow the pieces don't fit exactly right. It's hard to describe, really. But it's kind of like he and Scorsese crossed movies in this period. Scorsese was making the lovingly detailed "Age of Innocence" while Levinson was doing this period piece. And it was refreshing to see both men step outside their box, and the different perspectives brought something different to each film. And yet, it just doesn't feel exactly right. Kind of like fake tits. They're eye catching and you appreciate the effort, but they'll still never be authentic.