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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Exceptional, Sobering 'Las Vegas'

"It's none of my business," the bartender says as Ben orders another drink. "But if you could see what I see, you wouldn't be doing this."

What Ben is doing is drinking himself to death, the bleak premise behind last year's critically acclaimed "Leaving Las Vegas," starring Nicolas Cage as a suicidal writer and Elisabeth Shue as Sera, the prostitute who takes him in as they fall in love during his last days in Vegas.

Cage won an Academy Award for his work, and it was well deserved. A veteran of movies that tend more toward the goofy ("Moonstruck," "Raising Arizona"), he gives variety and credibility to a role governed by heavy intoxication. Shaking uncontrollably as he tries to sign a check before his morning drink, Ben is pitiful; slurring at an unreceptive woman at a bar, he is loathsome; confessing his attachment to Sera he is suddenly endearing, and we catch a glimpse of what he might have been like without one hand eternally grasping for the bottle. But throughout, Cage maintains the undercurrent of determination necessary to sustain Ben's methodical march toward self-destruction, and necessary for the viewer to accept from the outset that his demise is inevitable.

Shue also gives an Oscar-worthy performance, one that adds depth to the hooker-with-a-heart stereotype by playing it straight. Sera's motives for taking Ben in are simple -- she is lonely and wants to feel needed -- but like Ben she is not about to compromise her lifestyle for companionship. Never apologetic, never self-effacing, Sera is a realist but not a cynic. She radiates an extraordinarily artless warmth that allows her not merely to tolerate Ben's slow suicide but to accept it, perhaps best summed up when, without a hint of irony, she buys Ben a flask for a present.

One of the film's triumphs in dealing with what could have been two very trite characters is its near-exclusive focus on the present. Where a more pedestrian movie would almost certainly have delved into the past circumstances of its protagonists -- even just to answer the basic questions of what turned Sera to prostitution and Ben to the bottle -- "Leaving Las Vegas" shelves these issues as moot, which indeed they are. For the few, intense weeks in which their lives intersect, Sera is a hooker, Ben is an alcoholic: These are the identities by which they know each other, and by which we know them, without the explanatory notes of personal history. If we want to invoke a little pop psychology to advise them, or forgive them, or save them from themselves, we are denied that catharsis. As the would-be helpful bartender admits, it's none of our business.

Ben's alcoholism is handled deftly by director Mike Figgis. His rendering of Las Vegas, shifting abruptly from strident neon to dingy daylight to the eternal darkness of bars, mimics the jagged worldview of a man for whom the linear passage of time has become a heap of broken images. "How was our evening?" Ben asks Sera after a particularly rough night at the casino; he recalls it only in flashes and, what he does not recall, we are told but do not see.

Sera's world, on the other hand, despite an abusive relationship with her pimp (Julian Sands) that ends early in the movie, is not quite outside the realm of her control, and so her thoughts are expressed lucidly in short monologues that might have been hokey if not for Shue's honest delivery. Twisting her hands like a love-struck adolescent as she describes her immediate attraction to Ben, Sera's wonder at having been touched emotionally by a man (ironically, by a man not bent on touching her body) is absolutely convincing. Whether you believe that love could blossom so quickly and under such harsh conditions is not as important as the fact that these characters, so superbly acted and therefore so real, believe it themselves.

If you have heard anything about "Leaving Las Vegas," you will have heard that it is depressing. This is true: It is at times even painful, and any urge to drown your consequent melancholy in drink will likely have been erased by the stomach-churning quantities of hard liquor Ben swills. But without swaying from a conclusion dictated from the opening scene, in which a seemingly lighthearted Ben fills a grocery cart with his chosen poison, "Leaving Las Vegas" makes a poignant plea for compassion and acceptance in the face of human suffering, and it should not be missed.

"Leaving Las Vegas," in English, is the first feature at a new cinema in the Hotel National, 15/1 Mokhovaya Ulitsa. It shows daily at 4:30, 7 and 9 p.m. through Nov. 21; tickets are the ruble equivalent of $8. Nearest metro: Okhotny Ryad