This weekend, I’m heading to Las Vegas for the Rock ‘n’ Roll Half Marathon, a blast of a race that takes runners up and down the Strip at night. Lights glitter and flash, bands play every mile or so and the street is packed with runners dressed as Elvis impersonators, brides and grooms (because there’s a run-through chapel along the course, of course) and all manner of showgirl and freak. It’s flat, fast and has a fantastic vibe.
But before I cram a bunch of pasta in my face in preparation, I wanted to share some of my favorite movies set in Las Vegas. It was very hard to pare it down to just five, as the game demands, because so many movies have taken place there. The possibility that anything can happen is just too irresistible, as is the drama that ensues when those dreams of fortune don’t come true. You will notice that nowhere in this list is a film with the word “Hangover” in its title — but I’d love to hear what you guys would choose. And best of luck.
_ “Ocean’s Eleven” (2001): The Steven Soderbergh remake, although the 1960 original starring Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr. and Angie Dickinson certainly has its swingin’, old-school charms. This is Soderbergh at his most glossy and crowd-pleasing. Who wouldn’t sign up to rob a bunch of casinos with George Clooney, Brad Pitt and Matt Damon? Astounding cast, showy supporting parts, great energy, gorgeous clothes, fun score. If you don’t have an enormous grin on your face while watching this trailer, then you just plain don’t like fun.
_ “Swingers” (1996): Young, skinny Jon Favreau and Vince Vaughn when no one knew who they were and their crackling banter felt fresh and new. The majority of this stylish and hugely influential early indie from director Doug Liman takes place in a very specific corner of Los Angeles (and helped fuel the whole retro, Daddy-O shtick of the mid-’90s). But the section in which Favreau and Vaughn make a spontaneous road trip to Las Vegas is so crucial (and oft-quoted — “Vegas, baby!”) that I had to include it. I also like this part of the movie because it reflects both the allure of the dreams Vegas offers and the reality of what it’s like to actually live and work there.
_ “The Cooler” (2003): An excellent use of William H. Macy’s sad-sack demeanor, unlikely likability and those lonely, blue eyes. Macy stars as Bernie, a “cooler” at the cheesy Shangri-La Casino — a former gambler who exudes such bad vibes that all he has to do is walk by a blackjack or craps table and he turns winners into losers. Maria Bello is lovely as the damaged cocktail waitress who sees something special in Bernie and turns his luck around, and Alec Baldwin is ideally cast as the casino’s bellowing owner, to whom Bernie is in serious debt. This trailer makes the movie look wackier and schmaltzier that it is; if you haven’t seen the film, it’s actually more poignant than this.
_ “Leaving Las Vegas” (1995): Sin City isn’t all fun and games, so this list can’t be, either. Nicolas Cage stars as a fired Hollywood screenwriter who loses all hope and moves to Las Vegas to drink himself to death. There, he meets Elisabeth Shue as the prostitute who unexpectedly falls for him but also enables him. Mike Figgis’ drama is just brutal. It earned Cage the one Academy Award he’s got as well as a nomination for Shue. (If you want a happy movie starring Cage in Las Vegas, check out 1992’s “Honeymoon in Vegas,” which is still kind of adorable.)
_ “Showgirls” (1995): Because I can’t help myself. Yes, it’s famously and spectacularly terrible, but you can’t deny the fact that it’s entertaining in its own (unintended) way. (Although there is the school of thought that Paul Verhoeven, Joe Eszterhas and Co. meant for it to be awful.) Nor can you ignore its place in pop culture. I can’t help quoting it whenever I visit Las Vegas, especially if I walk through Caesars Palace — in my Ver-sayce.