Cage Examination #23: Leaving Las Vegas

Film: Leaving Las Vegas
Demeanor: Academy Award Winning Drunk.
Hair Quality: Frazzled, thinning. A precursor to Adaptation-level hair weirdness. 
Performance Quality: 9 Cages Out of 10.

Many of those I’ve discussed this year-long project with tend to immediately call out a few films in Our Greatest Living Actor’s catalog of film. Usually, it’s the wackier stuff, of the Con Air, or Vampire’s Kiss, or yes, The Wicker Man fame. Strangely, only a handful of people I’ve talked to even mentioned, or even seemed to recall much about Leaving Las Vegas. Perhaps this is due in no small part to the film not being nearly as ubiquitous in pop culture lore as stuff like The Rock and Deadfall, but still, this bothers me. How can anyone with an affinity for Nicolas Cage not be interested in the role that won the man his only Oscar to date?

Perhaps some are scared off by the notion that Leaving Las Vegas is some kind of prestige picture, a movie weighted down by the kind of emotional seriousness that so often appeals to the aged, seemingly perpetually dour Academy voters. Certainly Leaving Las Vegas has some of the tenets of the kind of ultraserious dramas that typically take home Oscar gold, including: the tortured protagonist, the tragic female lead, a greater focus on characters over plot, and a fair amount of indie cred for its small budget and off-kilter style.

But on the other hand, Leaving Las Vegas is also kind of an insane movie.

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Cage Examination #22: Kiss of Death

Film: Kiss of Death
Demeanor: Bug-eyed fits of rage broken up by periodic moments of oddball lucidity.
Hair Quality: Largely overshadowed by the quality of Cage’s goatee, which is magnificent.
Performance Quality: Seven Cages Out of Ten. 

Little Junior Brown is a very strange character.

I mean this both in the colloquial “Man, what a character!” sense, as well as on a conceptual level. As a construct created by a writer to inflict menace and/or comedy relief on a protagonist, Brown is only effective in fits and starts. This is not necessarily the fault of Our Greatest Living Actor, who portrayed brown in the 1995 crime thriller Kiss of Death. However, given the sheer volume of peculiar ticks and inexplicable character traits stuffed into Brown’s dialogue, I do have an inkling that he was involved in shaping some of this character’s tone and demeanor.

Perhaps it was director Barbet Schroeder’s will that Brown, the heir apparent to a New York crime family of indeterminate national origin (I think they might all be Irish?), have an affinity for bench-pressing strippers in his family-owned nightclub. Maybe Cage had nothing to do with Brown’s penchant for crafting acronyms, asking tactless philosophical questions, nor his anxiety over the thought of anything metal being in his mouth. Maybe his pile of character quirks came from other sources. But knowing Cage as well as I think I do by this point in our series, I highly doubt it.

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Cage Examination #21: Trapped In Paradise

Film: Trapped In Paradise
Demeanor: Perpetually frazzled.
Hair Quality: Often covered by hats.
Performance Quality: Five Cages Out of Ten.

Trapped In Paradise is a horrible movie. Awful. Wretched. Deplorable. Idiotic. Ill-conceived. Functionally retarded. Nothing about it works. It’s not especially funny, nor is it especially sweet, or romantic, or thrilling, or any of the other way-too-many things it tries to be. It’s a disaster from top to bottom.

And yet, no matter how blisteringly horrendous Trapped In Paradise was during its nearly two-hour runtime (!!!), one thing kept me in the fight. One solitary element of this movie captured my attention and reminded me that there could still be joy to be wrung from even the most atrocious entertainments.

That one thing? A man named Richard Jenkins.

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Cage Examination #20: It Could Happen To You

Film: It Could Happen To You
Demeanor: An almost zen-like calmness, with periodic bouts of foolish idealism.
Hair Quality: Blonde. And brown. Almost as if it can’t decide what color it is.
Performance Quality: Three Cages Out of Ten

There is no genre of film more thread-worn than the romantic comedy. You can cite the noisy, predictable rhythms of modern action films or decry the desperate lack of creativity in the current horror genre all you want, but they still pale in comparison to the total lack of creative forward progress made in romantic comedies since the genre’s inception. 

Presumably, this is because the people going to see romantic comedies don’t care. Every one of these plots is purely designed to get a man and a woman who initially aren’t supposed to be together to eventually be together by the end of the film. How the screenwriters go about this is entirely irrelevant. The game of Mouse Trap the writers come up with to eventually get these two kids to the cheese is ultimately ancillary to the payoff of this lovely couple coming together in celebrated union. Perhaps that’s not the case for those of us who are dragged to these movies and aren’t just there to make googly eyes at Ryan Reynolds or James Marsden or whoever the fuck, but we don’t really matter in the grand scheme of things.

With this in mind, understand that It Could Happen To You was never going to rank very highly on my list of Nicolas Cage films. I’d seen it many, many years ago, probably not long after it went to the home video market, but what I remembered wasn’t terribly positive. Upon re-watching it for this series, I realized that most of the issues I had with it back in the ’90s—namely, that it was totally boring and gay  and stuff (I was 14, don’t judge me)—wasn’t really the issue. In truth, the problem is that It Could Happen To You is something close to the most rom-commy rom-com to ever rom-com in the history of rom-coms. 

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Cage Examination #19: Guarding Tess

Film: Guarding Tess
Demeanor: Unusually stiff and stodgy, with just a hint of boiling rage.
Hair Quality: Very professional.
Peformance Quality: Five Cages Out of Ten.

One of the things that’s actually helped me quite a bit when working on this Year of the Cage project is the unwavering support I’ve gotten from my surprisingly game girlfriend. She’s sat and watched nearly all of the movies in this series with me, despite the fact that she is nowhere near the Nicolas Cage fan I am, nor is she even especially interested in mainstream film. I’m amazed she’s stuck with me since she clearly hasn’t liked many of the movies in the series thus far. In fact, for the last ten or so films in a row, she’s ended the screening with a now familiar question.

"Why did they make that movie?"

Usually I have some intellectualized answer for her about the meanings of this and that or whatever, or sometimes I just joke that a movie is just a movie, and people who make movies often are crazy people. In the case of Guarding Tess, the same question was posed, and for once, I was a bit at a loss. I didn’t have a joke or a quip to explain away its existence. In truth, I couldn’t explain the movie away because I barely felt like I’d even watched a movie. It was more like 90 or so minutes of my life had just been redacted, a black line drawn through whatever section of my brain housed whatever it was I was supposed to have seen. A minute after finishing Guarding Tess, I could barely remember what I’d even watched.

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Cage Examination #18: Red Rock West

Film: Red Rock West
Demeanor: Surprisingly calm and charming, if a bit egregiously honest.
Hair Quality: It’s just…hair
Performance Quality: Six Cages Out of Ten.

I think I missed the boat on Red Rock West. There was apparently a time when this movie was revered. Judging by its 90+ Rotten Tomatoes rating and insanely enthusiastic written reviews of the time, Red Rock West was something close to the No Country For Old Men of its time, a slick, darkly thrilling noir story set in America’s back country. The critics speak of brilliant performances, clever dialogue from writer/director John Dahl, and themes previously unexplored/uncombined in the history of film. 

I’d like to actually see that movie, if it existed. Unfortunately, Red Rock West isn’t really that movie. At least, not anymore.

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Cage Examination #17: Deadfall

Film: Deadfall
Demeanor: A cross between Tony Montana and Jim Carrey as The Mask.
Hair Quality: Wig-tastic!
Performance Quality: Infinite Cages.

Deadfall has simultaneously been my most looked forward to and dreaded film on this schedule. The reason to look forward to it is perhaps obvious to any serious Cage fan, but for those less well-versed in obscure Cage-ian lore, Deadfall is, without question, the single greatest example of insane overacting ever captured on film. Cage’s performance in this movie is the stuff of performance art legend. He’s less a character in Deadfall than some demonic presence that wandered in from a completely different movie. His existence is inexplicable and incredible.

The reason I dreaded writing about Deadfall is not because it’s a terrible movie (it is, but so are lots of movies in this feature), but rather because I found the idea of trying to dissect what Nicolas Cage is doing in this movie altogether daunting. Trying to in some way analyze, criticize, or even draw base-level conclusions about Cage’s performance is, at once, terrifying and seemingly pointless, because straight up, I don’t know what he’s doing. I don’t understand it. I have no idea where these line deliveries, all that hysterical shouting, and that purposely awkward wig-and-sunglasses combo came from. Without a real understanding of how these things came to be, I am simply left to sit in awe of them. There is no wrapping my head around Nicolas Cage in Deadfall in much the way there’s no way to really take in the little details of a nuclear explosion. By the time you’ve realized what’s happening in front of you, you’re already toast.

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Bonus Cage #1: The Best of Times

Film/Show: The Best of Times
Demeanor: Surfer jock x 1000
Hair Quality: Surfer jock circa 1981 x 10,000,000,000
Performance Quality: Not Applicable

We’re now more than a quarter of the way through Year of the Cage. I said to myself initially that I’d be lucky to make it a month, but here I am, and here you are. As a small thank you to those who actually bother to read these essays, I’m going to do a few Bonus Cage entries on slightly more specific, off-kilter aspects of Our Greatest Living Actor’s career.

Through this point in the series, we’ve learned much about Cage’s early career. We know his breakthrough role was in Valley Girl, and we know his first real film role came in a small role in Fast Times at Ridgemont High. But one thing we haven’t covered at all is Cage’s first appearance in anything filmed. In fact, Cage’s first real acting job came a couple of years before either of those films, in a little-seen, barely remembered failed TV pilot called The Best of Times.

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Cage Examination #16: Amos & Andrew

Film: Amos & Andrew
Demeanor: That of a delightfully charming transient.
Hair Quality: If Peter Loew had bitchin’ sideburns.
Performance Quality: Six Cages Out of Ten.

The early ’90s are like a decade unto themselves. So much happened over the course of the years between 1990 and 1994 that you almost have to split the decade in half due to the wild cultural shifts that took place at the midway point. In the early ’90s, there was still something of an ’80s hangover permeating every element of popular culture. That specific era of culture can almost be tied beat-for-beat with the first Bush presidency, as the years between his 1988 election win and his exit in 1992 are so culturally hyperspecific that you almost want to blame him outright for the existence of Hammer pants and Spike Lee’s career.

Not that Spike Lee’s career is entirely worth dismissing, mind you. While I maintain that the director has made exactly one movie worth watching in the last decade and a half (the fantastic 25th Hour), his early works were incredible, searing portraits of race relations in the era. Do the Right Thing and Jungle Fever helped galvanize a new brand of forthright conversation about how different ethnic cultures interact with one another during the post-’80s sorting out period. 

If pre-1992 was the time for earnest discussion of race relations via film, then post 1992 is when Hollywood decided it okay to start making fun of it again. How else do you explain the existence of Amos & Andrew, a slapstick buddy comedy that might as well be a giant “But see, black guys are like this! And white dudes, they’re like this" joke from some hack comedian’s stand-up routine on Evening at the Improv. Amos & Andrew is practically to Spike Lee’s filmography what Hot Shots is to Top Gun. It’s a movie in which idiotic white people harass a semi-militant, but generally well-meaning black man (Samuel L. Jackson), and no less than two actors, including Nicolas Cage, put on accidental blackface. It’s a parody of racial tensions of the era, and the very definition of “too soon.”

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Cage Examination #15: Honeymoon In Vegas

Film: Honeymoon In Vegas
Demeanor: Scared, angry, scared, angry, scared, angry, angry, angry, angry, and then maybe happy?
Hair Quality: Long and often sideways.
Performance Quality: Seven Cages Out of Ten

Prior to rewatching Honeymoon in Vegas for this feature, I remembered exactly two scenes from my earlier viewings as a kid. Specifically, I remembered the image of a then still somewhat appealing Sarah Jessica Parker emerging from a swimming pool (in a bikini that offered a generous helping of “underboob”) to a sweaty, nervous Nicolas Cage, and her face going from one of happiness to immediate concern as Cage prepared to tell her that he had essentially just lost her in a poker game. The other scene involved the great Burton Gilliam as a Flying Elvis, explaining to Nicolas Cage that he is, in fact, a Flying Elvis. I didn’t even remember the actual scene of the Flying Elvi flying. I just remembered the words “We’re the Flyin’ Elvises!”

In rewatching Honeymoon In Vegas last night, those two scenes have been joined by the image of Nicolas Cage shouting angrily in an airport at a clueless Ben Stein, and coining the term “airport jail” in the process. The rest of the movie? Pretty much forgotten it already.

Okay, forgotten is maybe overstating it, but I now understand why Honeymoon In Vegas remained in my brain as little more than a pair of scenes for so long. Most of this movie is little more than a fevered blur of idiotic Hollywood romantic comedy tropes laid out across hacky covers of Elvis songs by artists who were old even by 1991 standards. Sorry Bruce Springsteen and John Mellencamp, but I never needed to hear your best Elvis interpretations.

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