When was the last time you laughed all the way home from a movie? When was the last time you were surprised by any movie, much less by one that cost less to make than your car? I Don't Hate Las Vegas Anymore is an enchanting, intelligent mood elevator of a film with the staying power of a Raymond Carver story and the rare hilarity of the Tobacco Industry's squirming liefest to Congress.
A skinny guy dressed in black (uh-oh filmmaker) stands next to a white door. Speaking directly to the camera, haltingly, rambling, pretty clearly unscripted, he finally spits it out: "This film is an experiment in faith, an attempt to prove the existence of God." (Uh-oh, flaky filmmaker.)
This is 33-year-old Caveh Zahedi (a.k.a Bobby). He heads to his Iranian-born father's house in L.A. with a three-person film crew in tow. They're going to drive to Las Vegas and make a movie - until Bobby's 16-year-old half-brother Amin holds out for the $500 Bobby promised him to come along. Bobby only has $300 left; Amin shakes his head: "Sorry, I can't do it for $300." (What a great little American!) Their father, George, settles it, paying Amin the extra $200, and we're off.
There's some wonderful dysfunctional family bickering, finally settled when George pays Amin $40 to drive. Right about here I start falling in love with these characters - Amin, the young mercenary; George, the Old World dad who throws money at every problem; Bobby, the neurotic artist trying to direct some sense into the anarchy of his life and this movie.
But, wait a minute, are these characters? Is this fiction? No way. This is an independent art-house flick in grainy 16mm, clearly a simple, low-budget documentary - complete with shaky shots of the back of people's heads - made by a first-generation American filmmaker searching for his place. So where better to go than the most distinctively American city, Las Vegas, gambling that you don't need a script, that God will sort this mess out and make some sense of it, that a road trip is still a good idea for a film and a great metaphor for life.
Vegas is perfectly entertaining on this level. But long after you've chuckled your way home from the theatre you find yourself increasingly convinced that you've just experienced the subtle touch of a new comic master, a little bit bonkers, sure, but someone who has magically delivered something fresh and new - a weird hybrid of docu-diary and comic improvisation.
A good bit of Vegas takes place in a hotel room in Las Vegas on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day 1992. Bobby is a neurotic New Age Woody Allen worrying to the camera: Is there a God? Should I have worked up a script? Why am I ashamed of and angry with my father? Will I ever be ever to live fully in a moment? He wants to get closer to his family, hence their Christmas presents: 35 mm film canisters. Amin shakes his. It rattles. They open them: Oh, Bobby you shouldn't have. Yep, Bobby has gotten his little brother and his 62-year-old father (who has a heart condition) each a hit of Ecstasy for Christmas. Says he wants to open their heart charkas.
Is this guy for real?
Bobby spends about ten minutes in real time trying to convince them to take it. He begs, pleads, cajoles: "But a drug is just like chocolate cake or health food. Everything changes your chemicals." (Bobby? Reynolds Tobacco here. We like the way you think, fella.") But they won't drop their tabs. Bobby is crestfallen. So he finally does a hit himself and keeps on working on George and Amin - their persistent just-say-yes/just-say-no argument is hilariously, resoundingly incongruous. Meanwhile, D., the sound technician, is off getting drunk because she just learned that her girlfriend had an affair with her sister. So we have a couple of minutes of film without sound.
Then Dad and Amin come back and pretend to take their hit (I think they were pretending), and as an intertitle explains "9:32 p.m., Steve accidentally loads an already exposed film into camera" - we have a few minutes of double-exposed film, with Bobby's head upside down on his dad's face, everybody stoned on Ecstasy, two big lamps superimposed over them (uh, enlightenment, right Caveh?). Is this an honest technical glitch or a sprinkle of comic artifice? Who knows?
The morning after: The crew sets up, and everybody gets a final moment alone with the camera. D. is hungover and strung-out over lost love; Bobby rattles on about something; then Amin comes on: "I just wanna tell you people out there, never, ever agree to do a film with my brother." Then D. is back, smoking a cigarette and doing her impersonation of a young boy. George comes on: "Thank you very much and have a nice day." Amin comes back: "It's gonna be a shitty movie! No one's gonna come see it!"
For Christmas Bobby gave a crew member a tape: "Inter-species Communication - Receiving the Answer from Your Cat or Dog." Now, wait a minute. Is this guy kidding or what? I guess short of asking him, we'll never know. ButÉI have a sense of a gentle cleverness at work here, a twinkle of irony that sees the humor in what may or may not actually be his own odd beliefs.
Bobby's ironic sensibility makes him a tremendously sympatheticÉ character? No. Performer? Is Bobby really Caveh, or just Caveh's screen persona? Is this thing script or serendip?
Caveh has been making movies for the past 20 years. Before joining the UCLA film program, he worked as a film critic in Paris until he declared Ghostbusters the "greatest film of all time." He got fired. (C'est un fou. Le Bellboy est le meilleur film dans tout le monde.) This Caveh is one weird guy. I like him. So do AFI and the NEA - they keep giving him money.
Caveh, Bobby, whoever the hell he is, has made a film full of remarkable humor and gentle, fragile honesty. "I'm trying to love it, this reality thing," he finally confides. (Aren't we all, Bobby?) The one image that best captures the spirit of this big-hearted movie is Bobby and a crew guy bouncing up and down on a bed with the lovelorn D., trying like desperate children to console her.
I Don't Hate Las Vegas Anymore is a playful, naïve vision - elegant in its simplicity - that will follow behind you for days, always just out of sight, making you smile. I Don't Hate Las Vegas Anymore, a Cinema/St. Louis presentation, plays at the Center of Contemporary Arts, 524 Trinity, at 8p.m. June 17-18.
By Gary Danchak
The Riverfront Times, June 15-21, 1994