It's a safe bet that Ben Sanderson (Nicolas Cage), the fantastically dissipated hero of Leaving Las Vegas (United Artists, R), consumes more alcohol over the course of one film than any other character has in the history of movies. He drinks from one morning to the next, at bars, restaurants, casinos, and at home; he drinks by the glass, by the pint, by the case. Ben, a former human being, has turned into a walking sponge. Booze has become his identity what he has instead of a life. When anyone even suggests that he cut down, he sputters with indignation, as if he'd just been told to stop breathing. Early on, he gets fired from his job as a movie executive (his wife and kid have already left him), and it's clear that we're witnessing the tail end of a long, slow slide. Burning his belongings, he drives to Las Vegas, where he checks into a motel and announces, ''I came here to drink myself to death.''
What makes Leaving Las Vegas a weirdly haunting experience is that the movie, without in any way compromising the horror of what Ben is doing, dares to view his suicide by bender as a cracked form of redemption a lost soul's gutter bid for grace. It's not that the booze is rescuing him, exactly; it's that he has the flaked-out courage to cut himself loose from his body. Writer-director Mike Figgis based the movie on a 1991 autobiographical novel by John O'Brien, who committed suicide in 1994, two weeks after film rights to his book were sold. Clearly, O'Brien's alcoholic despair was the real thing. Yet Leaving Las Vegas isn't depressing. Since Ben already views himself as a goner, we're liberated from the pious message-movie suspense tactics (Don't do it! Don't reach for that bottle!) that have fueled just about every melodrama of addiction. Dark and giddy at the same time, Leaving Las Vegas takes us into dreamy, intoxicated places that no movie about an alcoholic has gone before.
In the past, Nicolas Cage has had a tendency to get stoned on his own ''passionate'' overacting. Here, though, he gives a madly inspired performance as a man spilling over the edges of his own sanity. Booze may be killing Ben, but his personality burns with life when he's had a few drinks. He's a high-wire space cadet, majestically free of self-pity, his tenderness as unpredictable as his rage. Cage has some crazed comic moments, like the one where he hails a waitress by calling ''Nurse,'' and moments that transcend comedy, as when he falls onto a glass table outside a desert motel and ecstatically announces, ''I'm a prickly pear!'' In Leaving Las Vegas, Cage mingles pain and jubilation until, like Ben himself, we can barely tell the difference.
Ben's mind is so drenched that it's hard to say, beneath his pickled bravado, just who this man is. Yet it's clear he wants something, and his heart comes halfway alive when he meets Sera (Elisabeth Shue), a troubled young prostitute. Too sozzled to have sex, he ''buys'' her anyway, and the two cling to each other like the life victims they are. There's no denying that this wistfully platonic love affair is a bit of a conceit. Figgis compounds the sentiment by relying too heavily on a lonely-nights-in-the-big-city jazz score (composed by the director himself). Still, the two actors get on the same silly-sad wavelength. Shue looks a bit wholesome for the role, but her no-nonsense bluesiness grows on you; you can see how it chimes with Ben's madcap desolation. By the end of Leaving Las Vegas, it doesn't even matter whether Sera saves Ben. She saves herself, and Ben, we're finally convinced, has gotten himself to a better place. A-