Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas

EntertainmentMoviesCrime, Law and JusticeCrimeBenicio Del ToroJustice SystemJohnny Depp

Friday May 22, 1998

     In his seminal '70s book "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas," acclaimed burnout Hunter S. Thompson wrote the epitaph for the drug generation and it serves as a pretty good review for Terry Gilliam's film adaptation of the book: "Buy the ticket, take the ride, and if it occasionally gets a little heavier than what you had in mind, well, maybe chalk it up to forced consciousness expansion. Tune in, freak out, get beaten."
     Feel free to take that "beaten" part literally. Gilliam's film (which he inherited from "Sid and Nancy's" Alex Cox, who was tossed off the project just before production was to begin) is a spectacular wipeout, a visionary mess that is so unrelentingly dissolute that it may prove to be impenetrable viewing for most tastes.
     The rainbow coalition of drugs on display notwithstanding, this movie is simply a downer.
     Perhaps that's as it should be, given the subject matter, but while Gilliam has always leavened his misanthropy with eccentric storytelling prowess in the past, here, he makes no effort to connect with an audience. (The Writers Guild ruled that Gilliam and collaborator Tony Grisoni should share the scripting credit with Cox and his partner Tod Davies.)
     There's no story, but there never was. Raoul Duke (Johnny Depp), a "doctor of journalism," and Dr. Gonzo (Benicio Del Toro), his "attorney," high-tail it to Vegas, ingesting freely from their generous trunkful of drugs along the way, to cover an off-road race in the desert, most of which they manage to miss. They partake to excess, trash one hotel room, head across town to pick up the bad vibes of a conference on law enforcement and drug abuse, then trash another hotel room.
     Along the way, tripping--and pratfalling--madly, they recoil from the sight of ubiquitous Vegas denizens, ghastly people made all the more ghastly by their chemical overloads. Duke babbles about searching for "The American Dream," but of course he has no idea what he's talking about and neither do we.
     Twisting Vegas into a variety show from the bottom ring of hell is where Gilliam's at his most inventive, and if there hadn't been a glut of films lately, which had already reveled in Sin City's garish side ("Honeymoon in Vegas," "Casino," "Cool World," etc.), this part of the film at least might have been nominally more interesting.
     There are so many scenes where colors blur madly, the camera swirls woozily and the characters scream incoherently at one another that you're likely to think you've wandered in on one of Andy Warhol's slapdash films from the '60s.
     Gilliam vaguely attempts to put the dementia in context--with Vietnam and Nixon the signposts of the era, Thompson suggested that the only recourse to a free-thinker was to batter one's brain--but that slender bit of philosophizing gets pile-driven beneath the film's sludge of excess.
     This odyssey "was to be an affirmation of everything that is right and true of the American character," Duke declares with an irony that is obvious in the book, but unfortunately is only understood much later in the film.
     Something like this was attempted once before--"Where the Buffalo Roam," a 1980 catastrophe starring Bill Murray as Thompson. That one, at least, seemed to get closer to Thompson's outrageous sense of humor; this movie scarcely seems to remember that the writer's ravings were, at least, supposed to be funny (a dramatized audio version of the book featuring Jim Jarmusch and Maury Chaykin, released on CD last year, is much more entertaining than this film).
     *
     For all that, Depp gives a creditable performance as Thompson's fictional stand-in. He's mimicking Thompson more than creating a full-bodied character, but someone that plastered probably doesn't have much of an emotional interior life to begin with, and Depp, whose baldness here would be the main shock of any other movie, manages some inspired physical humor.
     Del Toro, as the infinitely grating source of bad legal advice ("As your attorney, I advise you to take a hit out of my little brown bottle in my shaving kit") and wretched bodily functions, throws himself into his character with reckless abandon, and the discipline-free turn is quite a spectacle, if for all the wrong reasons.
     Turning in cameo appearances to no real effect except to add to their own hipness quotients are Cameron Diaz, Lyle Lovett, Flea (of the Red Hot Chili Peppers), Gary Busey, Christina Ricci, Penn Jillette, Harry Dean Stanton, Mark Harmon, Ellen Barkin and Tobey Maguire.
     There's one redeeming factor, maybe. Had "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas" had more of Thompson's tone, it might have made pharmaceutical experimentation seem like a wiggy kick.      As is, anyone who sees this as a movie glorifying chemical abuse must be, well, on drugs.


Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, 1998. R for pervasive extreme drug use and related bizarre behavior, strong language and brief nudity. A Rhino Films/Laila Nabulsi production, distributed by Universal Pictures. Director Terry Gilliam. Screenplay Gilliam, Tony Grisoni, Tod Davies, Alex Cox, based on Hunter S. Thompson's book. Producers Laila Nabulsi, Patrick Cassavetti, Stephen Nemeth. Executive producers Harold Bronson, Richard Foos. Director of photography Nicola Pecorini. Production designer Alex McDowell. Editor Lesley Walker. Costume designer Julie Weiss. Running time 2 hours. Johnny Depp as Raoul Duke. Benicio Del Toro as Dr. Gonzo.

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