Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas

75/100

Who ever would have thought that Terry Gilliam, once the bane of Hollywood and every bit the deranged auteur, would evolve into such an astute observer of other people’s work? After his twisted dreams-and-the-dreamer “trilogy” of Time Bandits, Brazil, and The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, Gilliam seemed damn near unemployable. Never mind that Brazil is held by some to be one of the few masterpieces of the 1980s — after all, the bad blood between Gilliam and Universal on that project was so rancid that Gilliam took out an ad in Variety blasting then-studio head Sid Scheinberg for refusing to release the film.

And Munchhausen was an unqualified disaster. Even its admirers (me among them) have to admit that the film itself reveals the bloated, unfocused truth of its production, which was completely out of control. As the budget ballooned to proportions greater than those of any other film previously shot in Europe, whole sequences were scrapped and what remained had to be stitched together in less than optimal fashion. Still, Munchausen had its moments of great(ish)ness, making it all the more distressing that it seemed sure to seal the ultimate commercial fate of a truly visionary director.

How he got the go-ahead for his next project is anyone’s guess. Maybe it seemed safe enough to trust even a madman like Terry Gilliam with a Jeff Bridges/Robin Williams project. Richard LaGravenese’s script for The Fisher King mixed with Gilliam’s directorial style, which had never been craftier, to create an honest-to-god feel-good movie about the power of love and redemption. When the story, which had to do with an unlikely friendship and an even unlikelier rehabilitation, became a little too pat, the ensemble cast saved the day. And while Fisher King would never be described as a model of efficiency, Gilliam’s loping, almost lazy style is complemented by a handful of terrific set pieces driven by dialog, performance, an overwhelming sense of compassion, and a fascination with what it means to be human.

Incredibly, Gilliam wound up back at Universal for Twelve Monkeys. This time, the lunatic was given the keys to an asylum that housed no less a screen personage than Bruce Willis, with the newly-hot Brad Pitt in the role of supporting nutjob. For a reported budget around $30 million (cheap by the standards of Hollywood and Willis), Gilliam did the unthinkable — he delivered an expansive science fiction film that found its audience through a combination of star power and a tricky storyline. Never mind that the real trick of the screenplay was the simplicity of its gimmick (lifted by screenwriters David Webb and Janet Peoples from the avant garde SF classic, “La Jetée,” which Gilliam claims never to have seen); audiences left the theater scratching their heads, unable to quite get their minds around it. Gilliam’s deranged sense of story and eye for art direction turned Twelve Monkeys into a wrenching, psychotic, and heart-breaking experience.

Last year, he was drafted into the movie version of Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, originally developed for the screen by Alex Cox of Sid & Nancy fame. Fear and Loathing is the chronicle of an extended, endlessly replenished drug trip taken by Thompson surrogate Raoul Duke (Johnny Depp) and his Samoan “attorney” (and adviser on all matters drug-related), known as Dr. Gonzo (Benicio Del Toro, who got 40 pounds larger for the role). Arriving in Las Vegas on assignment to cover a desert bike race, Duke and the Doc quickly lose interest in the event and instead dedicate themselves to catalyzing a series of increasingly debaucherous experiences by ingesting samples from their traveling narcotics lab, including pot, mescaline, LSD, coke, ether, and god knows what else.

When it works, Fear and Loathing is exactly what it should be — a reckless and hysterical vision of America through disillusioned, drug-addled eyes. When it doesn’t work, it’s still a bizarre fantasia leagues removed from anything else that a Hollywood studio is likely to put on-screen this year. Unapologetic in its garish, matter-of-fact drugginess, with TV spots reportedly banned by (Disney-owned) ABC, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is proof that, occasionally, something bold, visceral and unexpected can make it into the multiplex underneath a studio imprimatur.

Fear and Loathing wallows in the middle American kitsch of Las Vegas, using hallucinogens as a device for subverting that sensibility and appropriating it as a private playground. The key joke of Fear and Loathing is that the world Duke and Gonzo are inhabiting bears only a passing resemblance to the world that the straight folks around them are in. And the film relies heavily on incisive, cynical narration drawn from Thompson’s book to drive home the point that this wild abandon was more than nihilism. It was about making a mockery of complacent, clueless America. The joke could hardly be so funny if Thompson, who crystallized the long strange trip in a piece originally published in Rolling Stone, hadn’t managed to turn it into a new American mythology.

There is no story, per se, and the only character development comes out of the sense that, with each passing scene, these two characters are a little further removed from the outside world, a little more desperately numb, and ever more paranoid. At one point, the good doctor begs Depp to kill him by dropping a tape deck into the bathtub just as “White Rabbit” swells to its climax. At another, Doc is trying to seduce a high-schooler named Lucy (Christina Ricci) who’s come to Vegas with a boatload of her hideous paintings of Barbra Streisand. They crash a local venue just as Debbie Reynolds launches into “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.” Throughout the entirety of the film, they have a little trouble walking — one such drug-addled sequence is introduced by a voice-over about the effects that a lot of ether can have on one’s motor skills. The resultant spectacle is a stand-out classic of physical comedy, owing as much to Monty Python as to Charlie Chaplin.

In fact, this is the film that establishes Depp firmly as an absolutely top-rank performer — all the more impressive that he comes to it straight from his carefully controlled, absolutely convincing performance in Donnie Brasco (and Jarmusch’s languid Dead Man before that). His dead-on imitation of a young Hunter S. Thompson is irritating for about 10 minutes, until you get used to the mannerisms and speech rhythms. Before long, he invites you completely into Duke’s world, making the audience complicit in this whacked-out escapade. Offered a new kind of chemical substance by the Doctor, Depp’s Duke scrutinizes the bottle, his typically hyper demeanor barely concealing an innocent, childlike enthusiasm. Del Toro makes a perfect brutish companion for this buddy movie, his Gonzo offering a standard of insanity against which the more in-control Duke can be compared.

It’s not a perfect film, but its disjointedness is actually sort of in tune with the tale’s overall mood. Gilliam can’t put a new spin on every escapade, and all this mugging around Vegas does start to seem a little repetitive. The film itself is lacking a perspective on its own events, which Gilliam provides by resorting to extensive narration drawn from Thompson’s prose. But maybe that’s the point — it certainly highlights the gap between the high-as-a-kite narrative and the very lucid observations that Thompson made afterwards. Most importantly, Gilliam manages to make the whole trip feel just right.

The show-stopping tricks up his sleeve include a few digital special effects that are deployed with wit and precision to delight an audience as expertly as any Hollywood picture. Tearing down the highway toward Vegas in a white Cadillac convertible, Duke sees bats in the sky, which are only reflected in the tinted lenses of his sunglasses. As he checks into his Vegas hotel, the desk clerk’s face distorts into a hideous grimace (it’s Katharine Helmond, who had a disgustingly similar role in Brazil) as the patterned carpeting crawls up other patrons’ legs. And famed critter creator Rob Bottin provides a whole loungeful of lizards, a hallucinogenic approximation of animal life on the Strip.

Even though such psychedelic interludes are delightful, I don’t think the picture glorifies drug-taking as an escape from reality. For one thing, Duke and Gonzo’s situation is seen as an exremely precarious one. For another, the film, like the book before it, is very much a period piece. It depicts an intense reaction to a specific moment in time and space without endorsing it. In Gilliam’s vision of Thompson’s version of Nixon’s America, the trippy hedonism of the 1960s is a dim light in the rear-view mirror, and the Vietnam war casts grey shadows across TV screens as well as the American psyche. Not only is it the end of an era, but it’s also a moment of realization that the idealism of the last decade has given way to a very different, sobering reality. This is the story of what happens when you refuse to be sobered.

The only precedents I can think of for this film are Easy Rider, for obvious reasons, and Mars Attacks!, which, sweartogod, has the same cheerfully destructive mindset. All three of the films see the enduring American aesthetic (exemplified in Easy Rider by rednecks with guns, and in Mars Attacks! and Fear and Loathing by Las Vegas itself) as the antithesis of critical thinking and creativity. Caustic, triste, and hilarious, Fear and Loathing is a real celebration of the American outsider.


Directed by Terry Gilliam
Written by Terry Gilliam & Tony Grisoni
and Alex Cox & Tod Davies
Edited by Lesley Walker
Cinematography by Nicola Pecorini
Music by Ray Cooper
Starring Johnny Depp and Benicio Del Toro
U.S., 1998
Theatrical aspect ratio: 2.35:1 (Super 35)

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