The half-farcical litany of very bad things in Very Bad Things starts off with particularly Vegas bad things. Peter Berg’s new-to-tape feature directorial debut finds five California suburbanites availing themselves of all the sins Sin City has to offer. The occasion is a bachelor party on the eve of the marriage of a neurotic Jon Favreau to a pathologically fussy Cameron Diaz. The boys drink, take drugs, gamble, and receive a hotel room visit from a lap-dancing hooker. In other words, they cast off workaday repression for the decadent dream of the Vegas oasis.
Trouble is, we’ve seen it all before, the Nevada mecca as Hyde to America’s Jekyll, as the country’s exaggerated shadowland. Very Bad Things is among the complacent multitude of movies, novels, and stand-up routines that irritatingly reiterate Las Vegas’ dead-end outrageousness while telling tales that could easily be set anywhere else.
Very Bad Things aspires to subversion when overenthusiastic party guest Jeremy Piven accidentally pierces the poor working girl’s skull with a towel hook. Homicidal high jinks ensue, flatly. But the flick is no more or less subversive than the obscene requests of Indecent Proposal, the wink-wink send-ups of Mars Attacks!, the junior Rat Pack joyrides of Doug Liman’s Swingers and Go. Even Showgirls, a movie destined to be remembered as one of the worst of the decade, grinds home the idea that L.V. and L.A. — and, by extension, the USA — are corrupt frontiers.
For relief from the desert hyperheat I’ll take the pointed questions (rather than the easy answers) of three films ambitious — or serendipitous — enough to express a sense of the place: Casino, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, and Diamonds Are Forever, the only Bond adventure set in Vegas. Forever’s analysis of the place consists simply of a dry appraisal of its generous vulgarity. (”Hi. I’m Plenty,” squeaks Plenty O’Toole, heartily heaving her bust over a craps table. To which Bond says, ”But of course you are.”) This perversely sophisticated 007 film conveys Vegas’ absurdism by sending Sean Connery’s master gamesman to a land where gamesmanship has gone berserk. Bond encounters a full complement of mirrors, doubles, presumed deaths, assumed identities, and hairpin plot turns. By the time the sheriff’s boys pursue him down and around the Strip, it’s hard not to connect the cop cars’ flashing lights with those of slot machines and be dazed at the sight of Bond lost in the fun house.
In Casino, on the other hand, Martin Scorsese sucks all the fun out of the fun house. Sure, the cameras swoop, Mick Jagger croons, and Joe Pesci erupts in violence, but everyone on screen — especially Robert De Niro as casino heavy Ace Rothstein and Sharon Stone as his hustler bride — exists in a zombielike state of joylessness. They’re much like the blank-eyed hopefuls who numbly sit in front of slot machines. Just as GoodFellas takes us inside of Ray Liotta’s hopped-up gangster mentality, Casino aches with the sharp vacuity of people who can’t keep their minds off their money.
And for a psychedelic taste of the town’s power to deform the mind, there’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, a misanthropic head movie adapted by Terry Gilliam from Hunter S. Thompson’s classic of gonzo journalism. As Raoul Duke — the drugstore cowboy of magazine writers — Johnny Depp plunges to the bottom of both his pharmaceutically induced virtual reality and the town’s materially created one. Gilliam gets to the grotesque nature of Vegas: the mazy motions of the casino floor, the atmosphere less about swingin’ than mood swinging, the sensory overload so total as to paradoxically constitute sensory deprivation. Gilliam’s Las Vegas, like his Brazil, is not a place, but a full-blown mode of existence. Viva!
Very Bad Things: C
Fear and Loathing: B+