Monday, February 18, 2008

Nic Doubles Down

I love Nicolas Cage. Don't try to give me shit about it, either. He had my heart with Valley Girl, and then he cemented the deal with Moonstruck. But leave it to him, my ultimate movie star boyfriend, to stake his claim as The King of the Strip with his one-two knockout punch Vegas movies.

In 1992's Honeymoon in Vegas, as loveable lug Jack Singer, Nic goes against his mother's dying wish and hesitantly decides to whisk his girlfriend Betsy off to Vegas to get hitched. Betsy, played by the gorgeous Sarah Jessica Parker, however, becomes the ultimate chip in a poker game gone bad when Jack loses, while holding a straight flush, to gangster Tommy Corman, played by James Caan.

In his sharkskin suits, Caan once again capitalizes on his Sonny Corleone legend as the tough guy mobster who negotiates payment of Jack's debt by having Jack lend him Betsy for the weekend. What the fuck more do you want from a Vegas movie? Bad beats, pimping out of girlfriends, mobsters, a side-trip to Hawaii, SJP in showgirl getup, and desperate, zany Nic as a skydiving Elvis.

Cage is at his best when he's in desperate-manic mode. (see also Vampire's Kiss) And this movie keeps the momentum going from start to finish. It's set in Bally's, which is a rather middle-of-the-road joint, but there are shots of Sarah poolside (back when she had a banging bod before getting too skinny) and Caan with orange hair and a still-young Nic racing around the joint to reclaim his bride-to-be to up the eye-candy quotient.

I can't say this is the funniest movie. In fact, it strikes me as though it should be funnier with the gags writer/director Andrew Bergman sets up. Most of them don't exactly fall flat, but they aren't hit with the right buttons to make them pop for full effect, either. And yet, it's still an enjoyable film with enough comedy capers to highlight the whirlwind and jubilant side of a Vegas love affair.

In stark contrast, just three years later in 1995, comes the profoundly depressing tragic love affair of Leaving Las Vegas, where alcoholic Ben meets a hooker who loves him. If Honeymoon was the quintessential "starting a new life" and Vegas wedding pic, Leaving is the death throes of a life gone wrong, where even true, unconditional love can't stop the inexorable decay into doom.

To say that this movie is the underbelly of Vegas is an overwhelming understatement, but Vegas really is just a metaphor here for the overarching loss and despair, despite the hope and opportunity that floats amongst the alcohol-soaked protagonist, of Ben Sanderson.

Written by John O'Brien, who took his own life as filming on this movie began, it's often seen as the pinnacle, tour-de-force performance of Nic's career, and it deservingly won him the Oscar. However, though often difficult to stomach with its intense depressing nature, O'Brien really does deserve credit for creating not just such a riveting love story, but also a carefully nuanced theme within a very simple plot that buoys this movie beyond the sometimes shocking and unsettling subject matter. This is saying a lot, because Julian Sands gets an above the title credit here, and you know that most any movie he stars in is an automatic B-movie. And at it's heart, this is a B-movie, but done well enough, largely thanks to the two leads, that it manages to outshine itself.

The hooker Ben meets, played by Elisabeth Shue in an astonishingly sweet and sorrowful performance, is named Sera, which is very fitting, because she turns out to be his guardian angel. And though she's a hooker, or probably because she is, Sera and Ben never sexually consummate their relationship until the eerie denouement. Instead, their connection is something much more needy, a connection based upon two lost souls finding a home in each other.

As their scenes on the strip together play out, the lights shimmer around them, and it's hard to imagine any couple ever giving off more sparks. Shue, here, is the perfect mix of slinky clothes and aching bravery in a delicate shell. And then there's Cage. Already, he was showing signs of bearing a passing resemblance to Andy Kaufman, and yet his sleepy eyes and crooked smile capture every calibration between cocky and lovesick. When he grabs her suddenly and inappropriately in the Gold Coast casino and backs her into a slot machine to make out with her, there's more passion in that one, brief kiss than in a hundred sex scenes from modern cinema.

Director Mike Figgis follows the stark and spare theme by making the most of what he's got. Not just Shue and Cage, but also the repeating refrains of the haunting soundtrack. Don Henley's version of the Johnny Mercer's "Come Rain or Come Shine" is a song that encapsulates the unconditional love that Sera shovels Ben's way and it repeats appropriately. Meanwhile, Sting enters two other classics, "Angel Eyes" and "My One and Only Love" -- the combination of which, we would hope, would be enough to pull Ben from his quicksand, drinking death trip. But they aren't.

Early in the film, Ben tells Sera that he moved to Vegas because the bars are always open, so much the easier to kill himself that way. And though it's known and loved as a party town, an elopement paradise, and a wild free-for-all, Vegas does have its price. There is a wicked and lonely feel to the city when off the strip and down on your luck, a nearly depraved and debasing indulgence that doesn't just permit, but encourages self-destruction, much like that alcohol that Ben chooses as his suicide weapon.

There is nothing subtle about Nic's performance here, though it is sly and Cagey. Between embarrassing DTs and wobbling black outs, he swings moodily from captivating and soulful to painfully cavalier and sometimes cruel. Even his hands here are hauntingly expressive, his long fingers moving with an almost dreamlike quality.

Vegas is manic. And Nicolas Cage has captured both the absurdly funny and absurdly tragic in the bright lights and dark corners of the city, which makes him my reigning movie star of the Strip. Here's some lights for you, Nic.


puppypundit said...

That was a beautifully written piece. Thank you.

SusanD said...

Aw, thank you, Pup!