Vegas: Based on a True Story



Additional Venice Film Festival reviews

Venice Film Festival, In Competition

Iranian helmer Amir Naderi ("The Runner") has been making borderline experimental films in the U.S. since 1993, mostly set among alienated urbanites in the Big Apple ("Manhattan By Numbers," "Marathon.") His fascination with the perversities of American society finds new ground, literally, in "Vegas: Based on a True Story," a pointed moral tale about people who become so obsessed with money they destroy every good thing they have. Unfortunately, the director's plunge into traditional narrative cinema is too one-note to work at feature length. Film's commercial future is likely to be caught in limbo between fest exposure and home vid.

Glittering Las Vegas never actually appears in the film. Instead, Naderi limits his locations to a run-down patch of desert on the edge of town, where the blue collar Parker family abides in a flimsy pre-fab. The neighborhood's fixtures are a modern church with a JESUS billboard and a non-descript gambling den that also sells cigarettes and beer.

The husband Eddie (Mark Greenfield) and his wife Tracy (Nancy La Scala) are precariously reformed gamblers who barely scrape by on two jobs. Their handsome 12-year-old son Mitch (an interesting bow by Zach Thomas) prefers to hang in a beat-up camper where he grew up. This fragile family is symbolically anchored to the ground by Tracy's tiny lawn, with its lovingly tended flowers and tomatoes.

One day the happy home is upset by a stranger masquerading as a Marine back from Iraq. He makes an extravagant offer for their house, later confessing that he believes a buried treasure lies under the grass: a suitcase containing the spoils of a famous bank robbery. Within days, the whole family is bitten by the bug to find the money. From digging holes they pass to bull-dozing the yard, refusing to listen to reason even as their home and happiness disintegrate in front of their eyes.

There's a promising idea for a film here, but the heavy-handed "Vegas" labors every point well beyond audience tolerance: that Eddie can't control his impulse to gamble, that Tracy is a control freak, that the land and house are fated to be wiped out by greedy obsession. This kind of story cries out for a strong, experienced cast which might have kept it from dramatically flat-lining. The cinematography, as in all Naderi films, is calculated to the inch and highly expressive in its spareness, while wind chimes creating a sense of evil foreboding.

Production company: Alphaville Films NYC. Cast: Mark Greenfield, Nancy La Scala, Zach Thomas, Walt Turner, Alexis Hart. Director: Amir Naderi. Screenwriters: Amir Naderi, Susan Brennan, Bliss Esposito, Charlie Lake Keaton.
Producer: Amir Naderi, Abou Farman. Co-producers: Walt Turner, Charlie Lake Keaton. Director of photography: Chris Edwards. Production designer: Amir Naderi. Editor: Amir Naderi. Sales Agent: Cinetic Media (N.America)/Celluloid Dreams. 102 minutes.