LAS VEGAS — From the 34th floor of the Aria Resort & Casino, a colossal hotel complex with more than 4,000 rooms and a 150,000-square-foot gambling floor, Robert De Niro surveyed what remained of the Las Vegas he once knew.
"I don't even recognize the place," the 70-year-old actor said, peering out the vertiginous, floor-to-ceiling windows in his suite. "I can't even imagine how much this city has changed. When you fly in here, it just goes on and on."
Asked to point out some of the locations where he and Martin Scorsese made "Casino" nearly two decades ago — specifically, the Riviera Hotel & Casino — De Niro was stumped and shook his head. All of Las Vegas' new construction, including the faux metropolis of CityCenter in which the Aria stood, blocked everything else. There was no escaping the mega-development bubble.
That the Las Vegas of De Niro's memory had vanished from sight wasn't incidental. The veteran actor, along with three male cast mates equally of a certain age, traveled to Nevada last week to promote "Last Vegas," a long-in-the-works comedy about a group of long-in-the-tooth friends coming together for one final bachelor party.
Glibly described by some as a cross between "The Hangover" and "The Bucket List," the PG-13 comedy, opening Friday, intends to be something else: a reverse coming-of-age story in which the principals — De Niro, Michael Douglas, Morgan Freeman and Kevin Kline — try to navigate a world that has little interest in nostalgia and the elderly.
In some ways, that describes much of Hollywood itself, where actresses over 40 are considered dinosaurs and older moviegoers are usually treated as more of a box-office side dish, something that might just come along, than the main serving. "Last Vegas" is expected to take in around $16 million in its first weekend, but the real profitability test will come in the weeks ahead because older moviegoers don't usually rush to the multiplex on opening weekends.
CBS Films, which produced and distributed the $28-million movie, hopes that "Last Vegas" can replicate the performance of some other recent senior-themed success stories. A year ago, "The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel," playing largely to ticket buyers close to retirement age, grossed more than $46 million domestically (and $136 million worldwide).
In 2010, the Helen Mirren-Morgan Freeman spy story "Red" took in $90 million domestically; its sequel, released this summer, did milder business of $53.3 million. But other aging stars have seen their recent efforts disappoint. Two weeks ago, "Escape Plan" with 66-year-old Arnold Schwarzenegger and 67-year-old Sylvester Stallone debuted with poor results and has grossed just $18 million to date.
Many years in development, "Last Vegas" was initially imagined as a vehicle for Jack Nicholson. Written by Dan Fogelman ("Crazy, Stupid, Love") and first set to be directed by Peter Chelsom ("Hannah Montana: The Movie"), the movie eventually was made by Jon Turteltaub, who was coming off the flop "The Sorcerer's Apprentice."
Turteltaub, the 50-year-old director of the two "National Treasure" movies starring Nicolas Cage, previously had tried to tell another tale set in Las Vegas, an adaptation of James McManus' "Positively Fifth Street: Murderers, Cheetahs, and Binion's World Series of Poker," only to be told by studio executives soon after the book's 2004 publication that no one was interested in the card game.
"Now," he says of Hollywood's take on poker, "it's done."
Wounded by the "Sorcerer's Apprentice" experience, Turteltaub said: "I thought there were two ways to go. I either needed a huge hit or I just needed to do something of a certain quality that was right for me and who I am as a director. I could have done four or five other movies, but nothing felt really right."
While scripts for another "National Treasure" sequel came and went without receiving a green light, Turteltaub was given "Last Vegas," in which Douglas had replaced Nicholson. The idea was relatively straightforward. Pals from childhood, four friends with different lives, descend on Las Vegas to see the group's sole bachelor, Douglas' Billy, tie the knot with a much younger woman. Before he takes the plunge, though, Billy meets a single lounge singer (Mary Steenburgen), who also has caught the eye of De Niro's Paddy.
"There are certainly a lot of movies that are a better bet than four old guys reminiscing about their lives," Turteltaub said. But he saw the possibilities in the story and was reminded what CBS Corp. President Les Moonves (who recently turned 64) told him about the project: "A 68-year-old guy is not a schlepper with a walker. He's a vibrant, older man."
With Douglas on board, it was easy to cast the movie — "The other actors knew they were going to be in a real movie," Turteltaub said — but there were countless iterations that didn't come together, including Billy Crystal, Dustin Hoffman and even William Shatner.
The director ultimately chose De Niro, the 66-year-old Kline, the 76-year-old Freeman and the 60-year-old Steenburgen to join Douglas in the ensemble.
"It shouldn't have been as easy to get the guys that we got," Turteltaub said, "because usually they want more money than we were giving. It was the script, and it was the chance to work with each other."
The movie shot for only two weeks in Las Vegas — the Aria hotel, which figures prominently in the story, offered rooms and food at no charge to keep costs down — before the production moved to Georgia to take advantage of the state's tax rebates for the remaining six weeks of shooting. Given that his performers were set in their acting ways, filming required some accommodation. Freeman doesn't like to do more than a few takes, De Niro is happy to do as many as he feels like, and Kline prefers to ad lib.
"Everybody just does their thing," De Niro said. "And you roll with it."
As a child in the 1970s, Turteltaub visited Las Vegas with his parents, often to watch Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gormé perform at Caesars Palace. "They were as big as you could be," Turteltaub said of the lounge act, whose successors are now Cirque du Soleil spectaculars and Celine Dion concerts. "Las Vegas then meant class — you would dress up when you were here. You were expected to behave in a certain way."
His nostalgia is mirrored in the movie. When the characters in "Last Vegas" first arrive in town, they travel to downtown's Binion's Gambling Hall and Hotel, which dates back to the 1950s and is light-years from modern Las Vegas. But it's not that they are just in the wrong hotel. Modern times have left them behind, making them more fish out of water than old and irrelevant.
"It's not 'The Sunshine Boys' or 'Cocoon,'" Turteltaub said of the movie. "Clearly, age has a lot to do with this movie, but when these guys say, 'Let's go to Vegas,' they have no idea what they're in for. Their expectations are really off."Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun