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Thursday, March 27, 2008

Stop making movies about Vegas, baby!

click to enlarge 21.jpg

(Photo courtesy of Columbia Pictures)

Last night I attended a promotional screening for the slick, shallow blackjack drama 21 (pictured). The first trivia question asked during the pre-show T-shirt giveaway was “Name the motto for Las Vegas.” Pretty much everyone in the audience knew the answer, “What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas.”

Endless TV commercials for Las Vegas tourism have made the slogan practically inescapable. But the rule apparently doesn’t apply to the countless movies filmed there. Why can’t THEY stay in Vegas? Am I the only one who’s noticed a virtually constant flow of movies and TV shows that portray Las Vegas in a flattering light? It’s like Hollywood has gotten a serious Jones for the place, and can't stop selling Vegas to us.

Sure, I liked Steven Soderbergh’s Ocean’s 11 movies (well, not the middle one) as much as the next guy. And I get the appeal of Vegas as a setting. Its status as America’s vice capital lends itself to sin-steeped morality plays and soft-core pornography. The big casinos make for natural cinematic subjects: with their flashing lights and ringing noises, they’re like the grown-up equivalent to Chuck E. Cheese, with access to a robust sex industry.

But the idealized treatment of Vegas has become the movies’ newest, biggest cliché, visually as well as thematically. We’ve all seen the low-angle views of casinos from limousine windows, or the Las Vegas Strip landmarks lit-up up at night via helicopter. We’ve seen towering close-ups of chips, playing cards and roulette wheels. We can practically count the sequence of the fountains in front of the Bellagio. We’ve heard “Viva Las Vegas” enough times that we unwillingly sing along: “Bright light city gonna set my soul, gonna set my soul on fire…” Shut up, Elvis.

You’d think that Nicolas Cage’s career output in the mid-1990s would single-handedly have put Hollywood off Vegas for a while. Cage parachuted over the city in a white Elvis jumpsuit in Honeymoon in Vegas. He won an Oscar for drinking himself to death in Leaving Las Vegas — a title that would prove highly inappropriate as time went on. For good measure, he crash-landed an airplane full of psycho convicts on the strip in Con Air. (Because, you know, it's hard to find a long, flat, unpopulated stretch of road in that part of Nevada.)

I blame director Doug Liman for at least part of the Las Vegas renaissance. His films Swingers and Go sent young L.A. hipsters on snappy Vegas day trips, endorsing the city for the post-Baby Boom generation. I don’t know whether Liman was reflecting an existing social trend, or establishing a new one (possibly both at once), but since then, it's like Hollywood has Vegas on its speed-dial. Movies and shows don’t even have to take place in Vegas to genuflect in its direction. Shows like “Entourage” and movies like Knocked Up can take breaks to celebrate Vegas-ness in the midst of their portrayals of immature male Los Angelenos.

21 could be one long tourist board commercial, from the minute an MIT student declares “Vegas, baby!” (We sure haven’t heard THAT enough in our lives). Venues like the Hard Rock Hotel enjoy beneficial product placement as conspicuous as the Bud Lights ordered by Jim Sturgess’s card-counting protagonist. When Sturgess’s character finally consummates his attraction to Kate Bosworth as the love interest, they do it in front of hotel suit picture windows overlooking the strip. I guess that way he can imagine he’s actually humping the Caesar’s Palace building across the street.

One character in 21 says “You know, I think the best thing about Las Vegas is you can be anyone you want.” Perhaps the movie's offering that as a new slogan in case “What happens in Vegas...” gets stale. It sums up Las Vegas' essential promise in the same way: "Indulge yourself without thoughts of consequences or personal responsibility! Cheat on your loved ones! Fall off the wagon! Have another shrimp cocktail!" The current spate of Vegas movies take the city's sales pitch completely at face value. 21 purports to be a morality play, but basically lays its evils at the feet of Kevin Spacey's Mephistophelean math professor.

The weirdest and most bogus quality of Hollywood's Vegas movies is its nostalgia for old Vegas, back when it was the playpen for Frank Sinatra's Rat Pack, and less family-friendly, without a whiff of health consciousness or political correctness. It's amazing how the Ocean's 11 movies or 21's Laurence Fishburne character get so sentimental for the old-school city. Do people really think that Bugsy Siegel or the gang from Martin Scorsese’s Casino were a bunch of chivalrous, avuncular businessmen?

Occasionally you'll see a film that dares to show Vegas in the harsh, hungover light of day, such as a brief scene in Wong Kar-Wai's My Blueberry Nights. The Vegas adoration shows no signs of letting up, however. Cameron Diaz and Ashton Kutcher star in an upcoming rom-com about two young people who have a drunken Vegas marriage, win a fortune, then must live together unwillingly. What's the title? Put it this way: it’s an easy bet:

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