Ben Sanderson is a Hollywood screenwriter whose alcoholism costs him his job, family, and friends. With nothing left to live for, and a sizable severance check from his boss, he heads to Las Vegas to drink himself to death. As he drives drunkenly down the Las Vegas Strip, he nearly hits a woman, Sera, on the crosswalk. She chastises him and walks away.
Sera is a prostitute working for an abusive pimp, Yuri Butso, a Latvian immigrant. Polish mobsters are after Yuri, so he ends his relationship with Sera in fear that the Poles may hurt her.
On his second day in Las Vegas, Ben goes looking for Sera, introduces himself and offers her $500 to come to his room for an hour. Sera agrees but Ben does not want sex. Instead, they talk and form a relationship and Sera invites Ben to move into her apartment. Ben instructs Sera never to ask him to stop drinking. Sera asks Ben not to criticize her occupation.
At first, they are happy, but they soon become frustrated with the other's behavior. Sera begs Ben to see a doctor which makes him furious. While Sera is out working Ben goes to a casino and returns with another prostitute. Sera returns to find them in her bed and throws Ben out.
Shortly afterward Sera is approached by three college students at the Excalibur hotel and casino. She initially rejects their offer by stating that she only "dates" one at a time, but eventually acquiesces when she is offered an increased price. When she enters their hotel room, the college students change the deal and request anal sex, which she refuses. When she attempts to leave, they brutally gang-rape her.
The next morning, she is spotted by her landlady returning home battered and is evicted. Sera receives a call from Ben, who is on his deathbed. Sera visits Ben, and the two make love. He dies shortly thereafter. Later, Sera explains to her therapist that she accepted Ben for who he was and loved him.
Mike Figgis based Leaving Las Vegas on a 1990 autobiographical novel by John O'Brien, who committed suicide in April 1994, shortly after finding out his novel was being made into a film. Despite basing most of his screenplay on O'Brien's novel, Figgis spoke of a personal attachment with the novel, stating "Anything I would do would be because I had a sympathetic feeling towards it. That's why I did Mr. Jones, because I think manic-depression is a fascinating, sad, and amazing phenomenon. It's not a coincidence that some of the greatest artists have been manic-depressive[s]. That made it, to me, a fascinating subject that, alas, did not come out in the film".
Figgis encouraged the lead actors to experience their characters' ordeals first-hand by extensive research. He told Film Critic: "It was just a week and a half of rehearsal. A lot of conversations. A lot of communication in the year before we made the film. Reading the book. I encouraged them [Cage and Shue] to do their own research, which they wanted to do anyway, and then ultimately the three of us got together and just started talking...talking about anything, not necessarily about the film or the script, about anything that came up". Cage researched by binge drinking in Dublin for two weeks and had a friend videotape him so he could study his speech. He also visited hospitalized career alcoholics. He said "it was one of the most enjoyable pieces of research I've ever had to do for a part." Shue spent time interviewing several Las Vegas prostitutes.
The limited budget dictated the production and Figgis ended up filming in super 16mm and composing his own score. He remarked, "We didn't have any money, and we weren't pretending to be something we weren't. We couldn't shut down The Strip to shoot".
Figgis had problems because permits were not issued for some street scenes. This caused him to film some scenes on the Las Vegas strip in one take to avoid the police, which Figgis said benefited production and the authenticity of the acting, remarking "I've always hated the convention of shooting on a street, and then having to stop the traffic, and then having to tell the actors, 'Well, there's meant to be traffic here, so you're going to have to shout'. And they're shouting, but it's quiet and they feel really stupid, because it's unnatural. You put them up against a couple of trucks, with it all happening around them, and their voices become great".
Leaving Las Vegas had a limited release on October 27, 1995. After praise from critics and four Academy Award nominations, the film was released nationwide February 9, 1996. United Artists company distributed the film in North America, RCV Film Distribution with Atalanta Filmes in Europe, and in Australia 21st Century Film Corporation distributed the film.
Leaving Las Vegas was received very well by critics, scoring 82 metapoints out of 100 on Metacritic. Critics such as Roger Ebert from Chicago Sun-Times and Rick Groen from The Globe and Mail gave the film high marks. Ebert wrote, "They [the characters] are the drunk and the whore with a heart of gold. Cage and Shue make these clichés into unforgettable people". Ebert named the film 'best of 1995' and included it with his 'best of the decade' list (Leaving Las Vegas was #8). Leonard Klady from Variety said Leaving Las Vegas was "certainly among a scant handful of films that have taken an unflinching view of dependency". On Rotten Tomatoes, the film received 90% overall approval rating out of 51 reviews with an average rating of 7.7/10. The site's consensus reads, "Oscar-awarded Nicolas Cage finds humanity in his character as it bleeds away in this no frills, exhilaratingly dark portrait of destruction." Overall, the film was a success at the box office, particularly considering its budget, grossing $32,029,928.
Video cassettes and DVD of the film were distributed by MGM. The video cassettes were distributed on November 12, 1996 in two languages, English and Russian, while the DVD was distributed on January 1, 1998 in English for USA and Canada. Australian and UK editions were later released. The DVD contains a supplemental "Hidden Page" menu feature. The film was also released on Blu-ray, HD DVD and LaserDisc.
A soundtrack album, consisting mainly of film score composed and performed by Mike Figgis, was released November 7, 1995. The soundtrack also included three jazz standards performed by Sting and excerpts of dialogue from the film. A version of "Lonely Teardrops" performed by Michael McDonald that features in the film is not included.
All tracks written by Mike Figgis except as noted.