Film flam

Lottery tickets, magic tunnels, scorching heat in January and other Vegas-movie flaws

Partying on the roof of Caesars Palace? Only in Hollywood movies, unfortunately.

Dwayne “not-the-rock” Johnson’s much-punished yellow cab burst out of the valet stand at the Planet Hollywood —which is, by the way, below ground—and, a frame later, is barreling along a street lined with parking meters that could only be Downtown. They evidently took one of those magical Vegas tunnels I can never find.

I was so overwhelmed by delight, I nearly fell out of my seat. I turned to my companion at the Vegas premiere of Race to Witch Mountain in March and overwhispered, “They did it again!”

And, indeed, they had. They do it just about every time. It might be Sandra Bullock and company passing the Bellagio twice heading south during a Strip drive and then passing New York-New York as if heading north in Miss Congeniality. It might be the impossibly panoramic view from the Caesars suite used in The Hangover. Or maybe it’s that part in The Mexican when James Gandolfini kidnaps Julia Roberts at the clearly marked Belz Factory Outlet Mall, which at the time was on Las Vegas Boulevard South. To escape, he cuts a right to hop on what a Town Center exit sign reveals to be the northbound Summerlin Parkway before we learn via dialogue that both characters were “heading” to Vegas.

For one reason or another, Hollywood has a tremendous amount of difficulty getting Vegas right, and that has spawned a hobby among Vegas aficionados and locals of going to see movies set here with an eye for something that’s not quite right. Many of the examples cited in this piece are ones I’ve been hanging onto for a while or spent the weekend spotting in a work-related movie marathon—Fools Rush In holds up, by the way; Honeymoon in Vegas, not so much—while others are favorites provided by Facebook friends or cited on the brilliant site

Instances are always fun to recite to parties. The Paris Las Vegas and the Venetian are next to one another in Resident Evil: Extinction. You can see the Bellagio from Kate Bosworth’s suite at Hard Rock in 21, which is pretty awesome considering the wall of resorts in the way. In Swingers, the guys pull up to the Stardust valet, enter the building and start playing blackjack with “Fremont Casino” cards at a table that reads “Fremont” on its felt. And on it goes.

That sort of Strip-Downtown mixing and matching happens a lot, and for good reason. Hollywood loves the Strip, but everything’s so darned far apart and fancy and doesn’t offer the old-school charm—read: seediness—of the Fremont area. Also, those nifty magic tunnels work both directions; Bullock in Miss Congeniality 2 takes one to drive from the Four Queens to head south on Las Vegas Boulevard before suddenly cutting a left off some other street and finding herself facing north on the Strip south of the Treasure Island.

Part of it is narrative expediency, but another part is logistics. Race To Witch Mountain director Andy Fickman told me in March that there’s no way get a permit to film a car chase on the Strip. He claimed, though, that he shot an entire chase sequence that had Not-The-Rock driving out of P-Ho, onto I-15 and getting off in Downtown, but they cut it out to save time. (He said it’ll be in a DVD extra; the DVD is out on August 3. I’m movie’d out; someone else check.)

Impossible geography dominates this topic, but it’s not all there is. In Fools Rush In, it’s as perplexing to see the Sands standing between the Mirage and the Mirage’s marquee as it is to hear Matthew Perry’s character complain that his car seat is scorching. “It’s January, for Christ’s sake,” he grumps. The average January temperature here is, uh, 58. In Casino, we see Joe Pesci drive past a Citizen’s Area Transit bus stop even though the CAT wasn’t established for years after the film’s events occurred. In Bugsy, Warren Beatty’s Ben Siegel discusses getting power from the “Hoover Dam” as he plans his Flamingo, even though the dam wasn’t renamed in honor of the 31st president until a few months after the hotel opened.

Gambling errors abound, too. Nic Cage plays blackjack at a Caribbean stud table in Leaving Las Vegas. In several scenes of The Cooler, craps players hold the dice with both hands, a practice that typically draws the ire of croupiers. Ashton Kutcher sets the whole plot of What Happens In Vegas rolling by hitting a $3 million progressive jackpot after putting just one quarter in the slot machine, even as the machine’s payoff schedule shows you need to play at least two to win the big money.

The best of these, though, is the one I accidentally caught on Thursday when I was flipping channels. (The best, that is, because discovering such mistakes is a joy unto itself but discovering them by accident just as you’re about to write about the topic is miraculous.) At the very end of Ocean’s 13, there’s a fun bit where the hotel reviewer (played by David Paymer) who has been tormented by the gang in awful ways the whole film sits down at an airport slot machine just as Brad Pitt is leaving. Pitt’s character drops a quarter on the floor, which the reviewer picks up and offers back to the departing Mr. Jolie. Brad tells him to keep it, he puts it in the machine and hits a jackpot. Cute, but I checked; the slots at the airports haven’t taken quarters for years. Oops.

Does any of this matter? No, not usually. My Facebook inquiries yielded examples for Chicago, New York and Beijing, too. It’s really just a parlor game.

That’s why I was a bit surprised by the response from Hue Rhodes, the director of St. John of Las Vegas, the opening film of this year’s Cinevegas. The film contains one standard-issue geographic mix-up—Steve Buscemi drives by, in this order, the Excalibur, Mandalay Bay and Luxor—but he also strangely has Buscemi’s character buying lottery tickets in a Vegas convenience store. In fact, part of Buscemi’s backstory seems to be that he fled Las Vegas in part because of the ubiquity of lottery tickets.

Thing is, the lottery is illegal in Nevada. And someone who is trying to make a point about gambling in Vegas need not rely on a form of it that doesn’t actually exist here. In fact, Vegas fails as an allegory if the form of gambling referenced is actually one that occurs everywhere except here. Now we’re not just being scapegoated for our own vices but everyone else’s, too?

I wrote to Rhodes to see if he’d discuss these choices. He had seen a passage of a post on my blog in which I noted in passing that the movie “just didn’t engage me and that distracted me by the several smaller details about its titular city that it got wrong.”

He didn’t even let me ask any questions. He simply wrote a terse response: “The film is fiction. The actors and I worked to create honest and true feelings within that fiction. From your blog and your Twitter post, I see that it wasn’t to your taste. Best of luck on your piece.”

Touchy! I tried again: “Are you saying that because it’s fiction, accurate details of the city you’re writing about don’t matter? … You debuted a film with Las Vegas in its title at a Las Vegas film festival in front of an audience made up largely of locals. But the details about the city don’t matter?”

He didn’t answer. Maybe he lost his wi-fi connection in one of those magic tunnels or something.


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