Part docu-diary, part theological quest, part family therapy session and part improvised comedy, Caveh Zahedi’s second feature, “I Don’t Hate Las Vegas Anymore,” is a one-of-a-kind talkfest that’s as compelling as it is abrasive. Infectiously funny, morally questionable and excruciatingly egocentric, this elaborate home movie stands to cleave any audience neatly down the middle.
Like Zahedi’s earlier “A Little Stiff,” new pic relies in no small way on the director’s singular onscreen personality: a meeting of unquenchable philosophical inquisitiveness and mesmerizing, anxiety-ridden verbosity. And like its predecessor, “Vegas’ ” ingenuity triumphs over meager means. No-budget exercise will be hard to place beyond the fest circuit, but will undoubtedly serve to further stoke expectations as Zahedi moves on to bigger projects.
Opening with a direct-to-camera spiel, Zahedi recounts his original intention to make a scripted movie based on conversations that took place during a family trip to Vegas. But after two years of scraping for funding, the idea turned sour and he decided to transform the project into an experiment in faith.
Setting out for Vegas again with his father, George, teenage half-brother Amin, and a small crew frequently drawn into the on-camera action, Zahedi starts shooting a scriptless film. His theory is that if God exists, He’ll make it entertaining, perhaps even allowing them to catch divine intervention on film and thereby reaffirm the world’s faith.
Deep-seated parental and sibling resentment is touched upon along the way, but once the group arrives in Vegas, familial animosity takes a back seat to the sound recordist’s romantic woes. Zahedi’s willingness to make her anguish (and later her drinking problem) grist to his mill implants a prickly double edge that’s sharpened when he reveals a plan to open taciturn George and petulant Amin’s hearts with Ecstasy tablets.
A static camera records the filmmaker’s tireless battle to convince them to do the drugs, much of it in real time. Zahedi’s unbending focus on his film project, to the point of ignoring warnings about his father’s heart condition, creates almost unbearable tension and boldly risks setting up a wall of hostility between himself and the audience. The taut atmosphere is somewhat alleviated by Amin’s amusing self-righteousness and unveiled antagonism.
Zahedi eventually takes the drug alone, and its mellowing effect encourages the others to follow. When the Ecstasy hits, George’s immediate reaction is to hand out cash to the crew and send them downstairs to gamble. Amin also becomes more congenial, but the subsequent discovery of a discarded Ecstasy tab suggests he was faking, and his venomous dismissal of his brother’s filmmaking efforts is hilariously vindictive.
Large helpings of Godspeak and pop psychobabble will prove tough to digest for some auds, though they’re clearly colored with a subtle streak of self-irony that’s not hard to tap into. Counterbalancing the soul dredging to great effect is the continual acknowledgement and clever incorporation of the filmmaking process and all its nightmarish unpredictability, from lost sound tapes to double-exposed footage.
Technically, perhaps the film’s most valuable asset is Suzanne Smith’s swoon-inducing editing, using leisurely dissolves that allow images to flutter gently into one another, considerably cushioning some potentially grating moments.