'Vegas' hits a couple of naturals, but frequently rolls snake eyes

August 28, 1992|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Film Critic

"Honeymoon in Vegas" easily has 11 or 12 of the funniest minutes in an American movie this year. Unfortunately it also has 80 of the unfunniest, in which not much happens except that James Caan tries to get the Academy Award he thought he deserved for "Misery."

The movie is from a writer-director who actually has a doctorate in American intellectual history. Andrew Bergman knows everything about humor except how to make you laugh. He'll try anything. And now and then he seems to break into some subconscious stream of completely free-associative, almost surrealistic stuff that kills you. It seems to come from nowhere. But when he's thinking, "Now I'm going to do some comedy," the movie is snoozing like a dog under a porch.

Nicolas Cage plays a private investigator named Jack Singer who makes a living taking snapshots of adulterers, which gives him a look at the sordid side of matrimony; but it never occurs to Bergman that this occupation might make us somewhat suspicious of the young man. Anyway, Jack's engaged to a perky, peppy, chirpy, spunky, sparky bundle of charm named Betsy Nolan, played by Sarah Jessica Parker, who is nevertheless disappointed that he cannot commit. Finally, he relents: They fly to Vegas to get married.

But in Vegas, sly but somewhat romantic gambler Tommy Korman (Caan) sees in Betsy the image of his first wife and so decides he must have her. Being a professional, he ropes poor Cage -- a self-decreed card shark -- into a friendly game of poker and vacuums him of $65,000 plus small change. (Bergman is mum on the issue of whether the game is rigged.) Instead of money, he tells Cage he'll settle for a chaste weekend with the girl. Cage agrees.

Pretty slimy, any way you cut it. But that's Bergman's world: quasi-scummy people racing around trying to avert the consequences of their own behavior. Everybody in this movie is in some degree guilty of sin; each makes a big mistake; each tries to back down from it.

James Caan is the whole story, until the flying Elvises. It's a great performance but in some odd way too pathological for the fragile wisps of movie that surround it. Tommy is smart as a whip, an odds-player, a sharpie (very successful, too; he has a beautiful house in Hawaii), but he's yielded to a purely capitalistic view of human behavior. Anything can be bought; when the general principle of purchase is acknowledged, negotiations begin. The world, in short, is a festival of johns and whores and he's the biggest john.

Why do I think Korman's character is based on studio execs Bergman has known? Because Tommy relishes so intently the game, the tissue of brilliantly told lies, the mastery of self-deprecating gesture vocabulary, the gentleness of nature that nevertheless seems to nudge, nudge, nudge his pigeon onward in a smarmy, enveloping show of concern. He's all eel on the outside, and all steel on the inside. He's a player.

Once Jack bullies Betsy into going along, he regrets it: this sets up the movie's central narrative mechanism, a simple chase. Jack just follows the two, while Tommy and his henchmen set up obstacles and Jack desperately improvises his way around them.

There's a moment of humor so explosive it really breaks the movie in two: Pat Morita, stalling at Caan's behest, takes Cage to a shack in Hawaii where, for no reason at all, a proto-hippie version of Peter Boyle appears in a Jesus wig, and begins to bellow out show tunes. This has nothing to do with anything, which is why it's so concussive: It's the humor of the utter non sequitur.

The movie's other unbearably funny sequence is similar: a non sequitur invested with such brio it pops to life with its own weird brand of dream logic. The story is rigged so that Jack's only vector into Vegas (which he's left for no good reason anyway) is by hitching a ride with a DC-3ful of sky-diving Elvises. Theirs not to reason why, theirs but to do and fly. Suddenly Jack finds himself free-falling at the speed of sound toward the Strip, while down below Tommy is chasing Betsy. Unanswered: What's Tommy going to do if he catches her?

But again, the movie has lurched into such a pitch of operatic absurdity that it makes its own rules; you're laughing so hard you don't care about rules. If only it had gotten to this level more than twice.

'Honeymoon in Vegas'

Starring Nicolas Cage, Sarah Jessica Parker and James Caan.

Directed by Andrew Bergman.

Relesed by Castle Rock.

Rated PG-13.

** 1/2

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