By Drew Taylor | The Playlist May 22, 2013 at 2:00PM
"Leaving Las Vegas" (Mike Figgis, 1995)
While most Las Vegas movies celebrate the fizzy what-happens-in-Vegas craziness usually associated with the city, there are a few that choose to instead linger on the underlying seediness and depression that creeps into a place like Las Vegas – one that was literally built upon desperation, illegality, criminality and loose morals. "Leaving Las Vegas," easily the most depressing movies ever made about Las Vegas and probably one of the best, focuses on a screenwriter (Nicholas Cage) whose chronic alcoholism leaves him with nothing. He travels to Las Vegas intending to drink himself to death. It's there that he meets a hooker (Elisabeth Shue) and they form an unusual bond – he doesn't want sex, just for her to promise that she'll make sure he keeps drinking. It's obviously doomed and tragic and you know how it's going to end, but it's a testament to the brilliant performances by both actors (Cage was rewarded with an Academy Award for his troubles, Shue was not) that you get engaged anyway and root for a different outcome to their sad, sad story together. It's an essential Las Vegas movie in that it showcases something that must happen countless times a day in a town built around the concept of unapologetically taking large sums of money from people and its release, in 1995 at the height of the Disney-fication of Vegas (when the MGM Grand expanded with a world class theme park), was brilliantly subversive.
There are small (but considerable) portions of both of Doug Liman's first movies set in Las Vegas. In "Swingers," his tale of LA hipsters who engage in a romanticized notion of the past, partially to differentiate them from their peers and partially because its an affectation that is actually somewhat charming, a group of friends (led by Vince Vaughn) take an overnight trip to Las Vegas in order to help one of their buddies (Jon Favreau) get over a bad break-up. Of course, things don't work, exactly, and his hang-ups with the ex-girlfriend ultimately spoil things. This section of the movie is really poppy, though, and illuminates how close Las Vegas and Los Angeles really are, something that is all too infrequently exploited. In Liman's next film, which also concerned Los Angeles youth culture but this time was centered around the even-more-esoteric "rave" phenomenon (talk about being ahead of its time), a third of the film is set in Las Vegas. Again: it's a group of friends who are looking for a wild time, but this time hinges on a Brit (Desmond Askew) who doesn't quite grasp American culture, let alone the sex-and-violence overload of Las Vegas. Structured like a miniaturized version of "After Hours," things go from bad to worse and involve a hotel fire and a shooting at a strip club (it never gets too dark, this is a post-Tarantino comedy with an emphasis on the comedy). As far as Las Vegas movies go, it's interesting because both are focused on the exploits of young people without a lot of money (Las Vegas is typically exemplified by lavish excessive-ness and the Vegas-on-the-cheap story is rarely told). It's also fascinating that both of Liman's films would choose, for even a moment, to escape to Las Vegas. When he needed just a little bit more insanity, he knew where to go.
Terry Gilliam's breathtakingly brilliant adaptation of Hunter S. Thompson's work of fantastical gonzo journalism is like the seedy underbelly of Las Vegas that most movies hint at but never linger on, but here it lasts for the entire running time. It gets to the point that it's so disgusting that, immediately after the movie is done, you want to take a Silkwood shower (exemplified by a sequence where a hotel room is flooded with water and everyone has to slosh around). Set in the 60s, when, ostensibly, Thompson (played in shockingly vivid detail by Johnny Depp) was set to cover a desert road race (like the kind Elvis raced in!), but instead hung out in Las Vegas, drank heavily, and took a bevy of exotic drugs supplied to him in part by his "doctor" (Benicio del Toro). The movie is littered with fleeting appearances by movie stars in horrible wigs and make-up (including Tobey Maguire, Ellen Barkin, Christina Ricci and Cameron Diaz), with the movie giving off the garish, burnt-out look of a fried neon sign. Unrelentingly perverse, the movie is the other side of every "look we're having such a wonderfully drug-fueled time in Las Vegas" movie out there, and the period detail that Gilliam and his collaborators is wonderfully paradoxical, both grim and sunshine-y. For a movie so hilarious, too, it can get awfully dark and the entire thing is infused with a bolt of blackened melancholy. But then again, maybe the sadness just makes it even funnier.
The original "Ocean's 11" was the kind of movie that was ideally suited for a remake, because it's not all that good but its core concept is something that, if the right filmmakers came along, could really turn it into something special, which is, thankfully, what happened with the revitalized "Ocean's Eleven." In place of the Rat Pack, director Steven Soderbergh assembled a murderer's row of top tier movie stars, including but not limited to George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Matt Damon, Bernie Mac, Julia Roberts, Don Cheadle and Elliot Gould. What's more, the story was updated to the kind of post-Disney glitz of Las Vegas, with the gang (who are individualized criminals instead of being old war buddies of Danny Ocean's) looking to take down a trio of real-life casinos owned in the film by a wonderfully villainous Andy Garcia. "Ocean's Eleven" is all about the dynamics of male camaraderie and the romanticism of returning to a life of crime, and the thematic concerns of the movie intertwine beautifully, like the dancing Las Vegas water fountains that the gang assembles by at the end of the film. Featuring a snappy script by Ted Griffin that gives as much comedic value to pauses and silence as it does to pithy one-liners, and fueled by a jazzy electro score by David Holmes (he was the one who resurrected the lost Elvis song "A Little Less Conversation"), Soderbergh's "Ocean's Eleven" is a blast from start to finish, one of those fun Las Vegas trips you never want to end. Soderbergh's third movie in the series, "Ocean's Thirteen," returned to Las Vegas and pitted the crew against an even-slimier hotel owner played by Al Pacino.
Sweetly romantic and totally bizarre, Wayne Kramer's "The Cooler" is an offbeat romantic comedy (of sorts) about a man (William H. Macy) hired by a Las Vegas casino boss to act as a "cooler." This guy is such a loser that he causes the luck of anyone he stands near to plummet immediately. Clearly this is not based on anything even remotely realistic. The Cooler's luck starts to change (and his job is put in jeopardy) by a romance with an attractive cocktail waitress (Maria Bello). One of the great things about "The Cooler" is that it shows what everyday working life is like in Las Vegas – Macy has a crummy apartment, hates his job, and his boss (played electric intensity by Alec Baldwin) is a total asshole. This is the reality for most employees of the Strip and details like this nicely anchor a movie that could have spun off into fantastical nonsense (and still often flirts with the possibility). Kramer is something of an underrated director and stages things wittily, and while the movie might be most remembered for its inclusion in "This Film Is Not Yet Rated," a documentary about the faulty rating practices of the MPAA (it initially received an NC-17 rating for a glimpse of Bello's pubic hair in a scene where Macy goes down on her), it remains a sweet-and-soul fable set in a Las Vegas that's straddled between the old and the new.
Those that just missed the cut by a showgirl's G-string: "Indecent Proposal," a kind of dopey erotic drama that feels like a less-fun version of "Honeymoon in Vegas;" "Diamonds Are Forever," a Sean Connery James Bond entry where he travels to Las Vegas and runs into a pair of lethal showgirls named (wait for it) Bambi and Thumper; "Vegas Vacation," which retained Chevy Chase and lost the "National Lampoon" moniker, but at least has a few decent jokes; Paul Thomas Anderson's tortured debut "Hard Eight," which is mostly set in Reno, but has a few moments in Las Vegas; Barry Levinson's "Rain Man" also has a truly unforgettable sequence set in Las Vegas (Dustin Hoffman! Tom Cruise! Matching suits!); Peter Berg's underrated black comedy "Very Bad Things" shows how easily a bachelor party can spiral out of control very quickly, especially when dead hookers are involved; "Striptease," which saw Andrew Bergman return with the much-hyped, mostly useless Demi Moore-starring crime caper; the original "Hangover" was set in Las Vegas and was fairly insane; and, of course, the second greatest Las Vegas epic of all time after "Casino," Paul Verhoeven's NC-17-rated cult classic "Showgirls" brought us onto the stage of a hotel/casino's topless revue in the campiest way possible. We still quote it to this day.