No exit: Playing the hand you're dealt Movie review: 'Leaving Las Vegas' coolly celebrates freedom of choice -- even when that choice is bleak.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Here's how you leave Las Vegas, at least in the context of Mike Figgis' corrosive film "Leaving Las Vegas": You leave it in a box. For a movie about characters enmeshed in a downward swirl toward oblivion, however, it's weirdly upbeat. It is, in some nihilistic sense, about freedom. Having chosen self-destruction as a life-style, its characters are liberated to pursue that end without equivocation, self-pity or sentimentality. No tremor of indecision clouds their judgment. In exactly the opposite sense of the preachy Nike commercial, they just do it. (The film is playing exclusively at the Charles.)

Nicolas Cage plays Ben Sanderson, pilgrim of death. To know Ben is to like him. He's a decent, even charming young man who works in some precinct of the movie business, an industry that values charm and lightness of being. For reasons he never acknowledges, however, it hasn't worked out -- it, you know, being life itself. A habitual alcoholic, Ben has lost his wife, his family and his home. On the day the movie opens, he is losing his job, from an employer whom, you can tell, genuinely hates to let him go. "Ben, we've enjoyed having you around," he says, and gives him an unnecessarily large severance bonus.

Ben uses that bonus to buy a weapon of self-extinction -- not a gun, but several hundred dollars' worth of alcohol in all its variations. Burning his possessions in his backyard, he heads to Vegas, where his desire is to drink himself into the next world amid the squalor of America's only verifiable Babylon.

Part of Figgis' radicalism in telling this story is his refusal to sentimentalize Ben. He doesn't provide him with an elaborate background, a childhood trauma that in some sense justifies his decision. Knowing full well that no such thing can be done, Figgis (who also wrote the film, from a self-absorbed novel by John O'Brien) simply gives us a Ben who's lost the will to live but not the will to die.

In Vegas, Ben meets a young prostitute named Sera (as in "que sera sera," whatever will be will be, played by Elisabeth Shue). She's just been liberated on the death of her Russian-born pimp at the hands of other Russian gangsters -- a plotline Figgis lets dangle provocatively but ultimately meaninglessly.

Ben's first thought is elemental, for sex, and Sera's is equally elemental, for money. But of course so pickled is he, no action is possible. Arousal is beyond the physics of the alcoholic's universe: His stations of the cross instead are heightened verbal cleverness and mocking irony, the giggles, anger, self-laceration, bitterness, moroseness, slobbery self-pity and finally an unconsciousness punctuated by wet, bubbly mouth- breathing clatter. Well, heck, anybody can get a woman that way.

For some reason, once the commercial possibilities are revealed as moot, she takes to him and he takes to her. What ensues has the strange grace of an act of random kindness in a cruel kingdom. They understand that each is caught in pathologies that have but one end -- his at the bottom of a bottle, hers on the brutal streets -- and they make a kind of separate peace, an agreement to enjoy each other for whatever time is left.

Thus their relationship has an implicit set of rules: It's only about today and the pleasures they take in each other's company, but neither will assume the right to intercede in the other's chosen destiny. This, as it turns out, is much harder on Sera than on Ben, because Ben is usually so fogged by noon he's unable to notice anything.

"Leaving Las Vegas" is as slight as a short story, and perfectly content to chronicle this passing in the night without judgment ,, or too much drama. It takes primitive pleasures in the mild joys that the two share, but backs off for a kind of cruel adult's $H appraisal of their fates: This is who they are and this is what's going to happen to them.

But still it's rough. Figgis shoots Vegas as if it's New York, a bluesy mass of urban density towering over the mere peepings of the insignificant humans who live in the shadows. The details of Ben's drinking and Sera's inevitable rape are cruelly, clinically recorded, as is the ultimate end of their journey. Why should anyone care and who would go to see such a thing?

Oh, anyone who believes that when the bell tolls, it tolls for thee.

'Leaving Las Vegas'

Starring Nicolas Cage and Elizabeth Shue

Directed by MIke Figgis

Released by United Artists

Rated R

Sun score: ***

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