Ben Sanderson (Nicolas Cage) is struggling to hold down his job as a screenwriter in Hollywood thanks to his issues with alcohol, but he is still delusional enough to believe he can make it through to succeed in his vocation in spite of his contacts increasingly wanting nothing to do with him because of his erratic behaviour. Whenever this starts to get through to Ben, he drowns out those thoughts with more drinking, but there is only so much denial he can put himself through before he must accept the fact that he has a serious problem. Therefore he has two options: either he cleans up his act and gets help, or he stays on this course to absolute self-destruction. Which does he choose? Las Vegas awaits...
Nicolas Cage won an Oscar for this film, which may sound very strange now we are so used to him showing up and either plodding through a performance he is doing strictly for the paycheque, or going so far over the top that any critical faculties in assessing his style are confounded by the man being a law unto himself when it comes to his erratic screen persona. But if you were to go back to his time of glory when he was taken seriously as a thespian and secured that statuette as a reward for those endeavours, would you be seeing a career that had so much promise that was so squandered, or would you actually start to wonder what the fuss about this guy had been in the first place?
It’s a tricky call to make, since his Ben here ran the gamut of his leanings towards extreme weirdness and a more subdued, weighty tone, leaving the impression of both a happy drunk and an unhappy man. Not that we are ever given much hint as to what sent him over the edge, aside from some visual cues as he sets his old life alight in his back garden and sets out the rest of to be collected by the gentlemen of refuse of Los Angeles. But perhaps that was beside the point, as it was his final act of slow suicide that defined him rather than the person he had been before, in which case this risked glorifying the act of ending one's life, and if not that then inviting the audience to wallow in the prospects of forgetting all responsibilities and giving in to oblivion.
The manner in which director Mike Figgis offered this up was in a curiously seductive presentation, smothering it in languid jazz of his own creation and cover versions by Sting and Michael Bolton which suggested he was trying to class up what was a tale of utter degradation. That sense of wallowing in your troubles because it made you a lot more interesting than those other citizens who managed to get through their days without resorting to the crutch of addiction or mental illness was a damaging one, especially seeing as how they are extremely shaky foundations on which to support a personality, never mind a lifestyle. Yet here we were with movie stars acting big for our pleasure, adding a hefty dose of Hollywood shine to what maybe should not have been so purposefully enchanting in its movieland manner. After all, plenty of unfortunates pass away from the effects of alcoholism every day, and nobody was making their fate sound entertaining, though some would argue Figgis did not here either.
Yet considering the author of the book this was based on, John O'Brien, shot himself dead just as production began, possibly prompted by the act of making his work into a film, it could be that making suicide come across like a captivating narrative was not the healthiest of option for relating his account. Something Cage got right, and should be praised for, was the utter self-centred quality of his character, as he was not indulging anyone but number one, which could be why the narrative moved on to concentrate on the woman who enters his life as he reaches Vegas, a prostitute named Sera played by Elisabeth Shue. It was she who grounded the more excessive elements of the film in a convincingly hardbitten reading that thawed when she found someone she could look after, namely Ben, since he had the get out clause in their unwritten contract of romance that he was not going to be around much longer. It was a mark of the effect of this that we felt sorrier for Sera, having to live in this world without the suicidal impulse, than for Ben, exiting it of his own volition and seeming perfectly content with that. Not a healthy state of mind at all.