If ABC can make a sitcom out of the Geico cavemen, it's no surprise Hollywood can make a romantic comedy out of a city slogan. Unceasing TV commercials for Las Vegas tourism have made the line "What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas" so familiar, the Cameron Diaz and Ashton Kutcher film doesn't even need the last three words in its title.
What Happens in Vegas...'s first section inevitably plays like a big-screen version of a Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority ad. Diaz's lovelorn workaholic and Kutcher's commitment-phobic slacker hook up in Vegas, get married and win $3 million, living up to Vegas' miragelike promise. Then they have a falling-out, attempt to get an annulment and find themselves sentenced to "six months hard marriage" before they can get the winnings, turning the film into a joyless retread of The War of the Roses (1989).
What Happens in Vegas... makes you wonder why the city's famous credo doesn't apply to the countless other movies filmed there. Why can't they stay in Vegas? A virtually constant flow of movies and TV shows portray Las Vegas in a flattering light. It's like the movie business has gotten hooked on Sin City and can't stop selling Vegas to us.
Look, I liked Steven Soderbergh's Ocean's 11 movies 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 lurid morality plays and provides a backdrop for 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, only 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, and the Strip's landmarks lit-up up at night via helicopter. We've seen extreme close-ups of towering stacks of chips and billboard-sized playing cards. 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 crash-landed an airplane full of psycho convicts on the Strip in Con Air. He won an Oscar for drinking himself to death in Leaving Las Vegas.
I blame director Doug Liman for at least part of the Las Vegas renaissance. His films Swingers (1996) and Go (1999) sent young L.A. hipsters on snappy Vegas overnighters, 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, but since then, it's like Hollywood has Vegas on its speed dial.
The card-counting drama 21 (2008) gave the city an especially hard sell, starting the minute an MIT student declared "Vegas, baby!" (We sure haven't heard that enough in our lives.) Jim Sturgess' and Kate Bosworth's young gamblers finally consummated their attraction in front of picture windows overlooking the Strip, as if he could imagine he was 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 is offering that as a new slogan in case "What happens in Vegas ..." gets stale. It sums up the city's 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 takes the city's sales pitch completely at face value.
The weirdest and most bogus quality of Hollywood's Vegas movies is their nostalgia for old Vegas, back when it was the playpen for Frank Sinatra's Rat Pack, without a whiff of children, health consciousness or political correctness. It's amazing how characters in 21 and the Ocean's 11 movies get so sentimental for the old-school city. In Ocean's 13 (2007), Reuben (Elliott Gould) insists "There's a code amongst guys who shook Sinatra's hand!" Do they really expect us to believe that Bugsy Siegel or the gang from Martin Scorsese's Casino (1995) 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 the poker comedy The Grand (2007), Wayne Wang's The Center of the World (2001) or a brief scene in Wong Kar-Wai's My Blueberry Nights (2008). What Happens in Vegas..., of all movies, slips in a tiny bit of criticism, even though it spends most of its time squandering Cameron Diaz's talents and placing a sucker bet on Ashton Kutcher's cinematic appeal.
At one point, Kutcher's character reflects on his unwanted marriage and unavailable fortune, making the comment "What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas – but you have to pay for it at home." For a commercial movie to acknowledge an unpalatable truth about Vegas confirms the credo of the city's addicted gamblers: Even the most rigged slot machine will pay off at some point.