Exiting onto the Strip after a preview screening of Last Vegas, I had the distinct feeling of leaving the fantasy world of a movie … only to step back into the fantasy world of that very same movie. Reality made a cameo as a bathroom break. Here I was dodging teetering high-heeled tourists on my way to the VIP after-party at Aria’s Haze nightclub, which happens to be where the film’s four protagonists—played by Robert De Niro, Morgan Freeman, Kevin Kline and Michael Douglas—partied it up on their fictional vacation.
Last Vegas has been compared to The Hangover, as in it’s The Hangover for old men. But that simple designation is not fair to the movie or to Las Vegas. Instead, I’d like to think that both Last Vegas and The Hangover belong to a much larger genre: the Las Vegas Fairy Tale. It’s formulaic, sure. And it’s quite possible that the genre is the secret invention of the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority. But it’s what out-of-town screenwriters (Last Vegas’ is from New Jersey) can’t resist, so we might as well see what they’re saying about us.
In the Last Vegas version of the Las Vegas Fairy Tale, four elderly best friends are in a slump, one that can only be cured by a high-flying weekend in Las Vegas:
There is Sam (Kline), whose sex life has been dampened by a retirement spent doing water aerobics alongside fat ladies in Florida. His wife—as do all wives in real life—gives him permission to stray in Vegas because it might bring back the old spark. Sam goes through the film seeking out a willing fling. Does he find one? And does this possible fling lead him back to his wife’s bed in the sweetest, chastest yet most comical of ways? Hint: Did Kline not build a portion of his career playing lovable, yet comic rogues?
There is Archie (Freeman), who, after suffering a stroke, has become a prisoner of his son’s overprotective impulses. He sneaks away from his offspring with a hilarious ruse, wears an adorable fanny pack and cashes in his retirement for blackjack chips. Does this Vegas trip help him regain his role as a self-determined grown-up? Hint: Is his last name Freeman?
There is Paddy (De Niro), who has degenerated into a grumpy shut-in after his wife died and one of his three best friends skipped out on said wife’s funeral. Will Vegas fun help Paddy reconcile with his friends and learn to embrace life anew? Hint: There is a scene at Haze in which De Niro punches Entourage’s Jerry Ferrara.
And finally there is Billy (Douglas), the one in the group who turned out more than OK. He has a Malibu beach house, a personal assistant and a fiancée half his age. Can this Vegas trip help him ditch his sexy fiancée and find a woman his own age? Yes, it can. But should it? Really, should it? This is Vegas after all. Eh, OK, here’s your hint: The lovely 60-year-old Mary Steenburgen has a starring role as a lounge singer at Binion’s.
The Vegas Fairy Tale offers a three-part fantasy: gambling, babes and partying. As a pretty classic example of the genre, Last Vegas indulges all of them. Together, these three prongs of the Vegas fantasy unite to provide absolute escape from tourists’ pathetic quotidian lives back home. But can we as a city cash the check that these films are writing?
The first and most important part of the Vegas Fairy Tale is winning big. See Vegas Vacation for precedent in which the underage son Rusty Griswold becomes a high-roller complete with a hot tub full of hot chicks. In Last Vegas, no big spoiler alert, Freeman’s character turns a $15,000 retirement into more than $100,000. With the winnings comes a staggering comped suite at Aria and a personal VIP host to attend to the four friends’ every whim. Tourists, on behalf of the Las Vegas economy, I entreat you to try this little gambling trick yourselves.
With big winnings, a sick suite and a personal servant, De Niro, Freeman, Kline and Douglas (nobody is thinking of them as their characters’ names) are ready to live out the rest of the Vegas Fairy Tale in style. The rest being babes and partying, which when done correctly produces a general sense of being superior to everybody else. (How is that feeling expandable to the scale of all Vegas tourists? If everybody is better than everybody else, then who is everybody else better than? It’s the paradox that produced bottle service.)
The sexy lady aspect naturally has a strong precedent in other Vegas films. There’s Swingers’ willing cocktail waitresses, The Hangover’s marriageable stripper and Leaving Las Vegas’ empathetic hooker. In Last Vegas, the hot babes fall into two categories: girls that are our fellows’ age and girls that are way younger. Since it’s a Vegas fantasy, our fellows get both.
There’s a budding relationship with a surprisingly classy, beautiful, intelligent and age-appropriate lounge singer, played by Steenburgen. (Because all desirable local ladies just can’t wait to date tourists. And yes, with Clark County’s population of approximately 2 million there are more than enough local gals to service the 40 million-odd annual visitors.)
On the young, floozy side, these men find hot babes everywhere: They single out sexy passersby on the Strip; they judge a bikini contest hosted by Redfoo; and the “boys” might even find a bachelorette who likes mature men.
The third portion of the Vegas fantasy, realized in no small part by the first two aspects, is the awesome party. (See all movies about Las Vegas for precedent.) In Last Vegas, our boys party in several ways. They go clubbing, during which Freeman discovers vodka-Red Bulls and De Niro recovers his fighting prowess. “See, old men can have fun, too,” the movie cries out.
Then there’s the climax of the film, which happens as a party in the boys’ hotel suite. At this bash, everything comes together and all problems are solved. The four friends wear tailored suits, symbolically completing their Fairy Tale makeover from fuddy-duddies to cooler-than-thou high-rollers. All variations of the Vegas girls are there for decoration. Freeman dances, as does the cast of Zarkana. Why? Because they were invited via party flier. (Reality alert: The only way you can get Cirque du Soleil to perform at your party is if you pay them.) But reality doesn’t matter. This is the Vegas fantasy, and it’s fun to watch our four actors having fun. We’ve seen them serious in so many other movies that watching Last Vegas is almost like going on vacation with old friends.
At the after-party at Haze, while the stars were walking the red carpet, the tables were already waiting for them with a rose, a candle, delicate snacks and paper nameplates that read: De Niro, Freeman, Kline, Douglas and [Jon] Turtletaub, the film’s director. At this moment, Vegas fantasy and Vegas reality dosey-doed. Here was a scene from the film being—more or less—re-enacted in real time. And reality disappointed. Unlike the party animal portrayed in the movie, Freeman went home after the red carpet, not even passing “go” in the club. Steenburgen hung out for a little while. As for the rest, their nameplates were soon removed. Ferrara, who played a club kid who becomes the old men’s lackey, stayed the longest.
That was it. At midnight the party ended and the regular people were allowed to enter the club. Somewhere among the crowd, were four elderly friends waiting in line, looking for a new lease on retirement? Perhaps not this time, but there will be. At least by the time Last Vegas debuts on Netflix.