FEAR AND LOATHING IN LAS VEGAS
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 imagineâ€¦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
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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