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FEAR AND LOATHING IN LAS VEGAS

by: Scott Renshaw

Terry Gilliam's Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is about as faithful an adaptation of Hunter S. Thompson's 1971 "gonzo journalism" classic as I can imagine…though that's not necessarily a good thing. The book has long been called "unfilmable," which probably referred more to whether it should be made than whether it could be made. As it happens, Fear and Loathing on film is nearly an event-for-event re-creation of the adventures of journalist Raoul Duke (Johnny Depp) and his attorney Dr. Gonzo (Bencio Del Toro), kindred spirits who ingest every possible controlled substance during a wild spree through Vegas, ostensibly while covering an off-road race and/or a law enforcement narcotics conference. It's disgusting, perverse, incoherent, sometimes very funny, and too visually literal an adaptation of a book best left to a twisted imagination.

In terms of tone, at least, it's a nearly flawless companion piece to Thompson's book. The writer's descriptions of tripping on everything from acid to mescaline to ether never assaulted the reader with horror stories of harrowing experiences. They were essentially journalistic, clinical analyses where even the most unpleasant situations were softened with a dollop of left-field humor. Gilliam similarly finds the demented gag in every situation, including a hallucinogenic orgy of lounge lizards (rendered as actual reptiles by makeup whiz Rob Bottin), while still acknowledging the squalor. With Depp doing a hilariously spot-on rendition of Thompson-as-Duke and Del Toro sporting plenty of extra flab as the unhinged Dr. Gonzo, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas feels exactly like it should feel: a cockeyed whitewater rafting tour down a polluted stream of consciousness.

Ultimately, an episodic film like Fear and Loathing is only as successful as its episodes. Some of the most memorable ones are grand pieces of absurdist theater: Duke trying to skip out on a hotel bill as a desk clerk detains him; Duke and Gonzo doing coke at the narcotics conference while watching a Reefer Madness-style instructional film; a flashback to Duke's first acid trip in a nightclub restroom. There are also several scenes which turn absolute fidelity to the source material into grinding sluggishness. At nearly two hours, Fear and Loathing could have used plenty of judicious trimming; once we understand the characters, encounters like Gonzo's showdown with a diner waitress (Ellen Barkin) feel like excess weight. A head-trip film like this one is better suited for 90 minutes of damn-the-torpedoes pacing than for this kind of reverence.

Gilliam also manages to extract Thompson's one and only "message" regarding the drug culture. The film's temporal setting - "this foul Year of Our Lord nineteen hundred and seventy-one" - is defined as a turning point in the use and perception of drugs, with the innocent notion of chemicals as reality-expanding tools giving way to chemicals as reality-numbing tools. Even here Gilliam's fidelity to the source undermines him, as images of Vietnam and Nixon point a too-obvious accusatory finger and Thompson's own unapologetic voice is subverted by the suggestion that he is a victim of the times. The audience for a film as down and dirty as this one is limited anyway, but its anachronistic incorrectness may not even appeal to the like-minded.

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas does do a solid job of capturing the era's madness in a city which is a madhouse distillation of the American dream; it's a scattershot rendering of a scattershot story told with scattershot effectiveness. It's consistently intriguing, if for no other reason than Gilliam's willingness to go every ugly place Thompson's book went. The only thing really wrong with Gilliam's Fear and Loathing is that it's a movie, bringing into vivid color that which should only have lived on the

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