Review: ‘Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas’

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas" is a bad trip. Long-gestating adaptation of Hunter S. Thompson's hallucinatory 1971 gonzo tome has become an over-elaborate gross-out under Terry Gilliam's direction, a visualization of a flashpoint in the history of trendy pharmaceuticals without a story or detectable point of view.

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” is a bad trip. Long-gestating adaptation of Hunter S. Thompson’s hallucinatory 1971 gonzo tome has become an over-elaborate gross-out under Terry Gilliam’s direction, a visualization of a flashpoint in the history of trendy pharmaceuticals without a story or detectable point of view. Johnny Depp’s impersonation of the Thompson figure is effective up to a point, but it’s hard to imagine any segment of the public embracing this off-putting, unrewarding slog through the depths of the drug culture. Beyond whatever draw Depp and Gilliam provide for the opening round, pic’s commercial ride will be a bummer.

“This is not a good town for psychedelic drugs,” Depp’s spaced-out journo Raoul Duke quips at one despairing moment, and the excess of mind-boggling amounts of substance abuse piled upon the built-in excess of Vegas proves equally debilitating for the viewer.

Shot with queasy-making, distorting wide-angle lenses and filled with frenetic activity and a torrent of mostly nonsensical dialogue, pic serves up a sensory overload without any compensatory reflection on the outlandish and irresponsible behavior on view.

There is an outside chance the film might have worked as a down-and-dirty, on-the-fly low-budgeter such as Rhino originally envisioned it with Alex Cox as director, but the slickness and sheer weight of the current production bog down its flights of fancy rather than liberate them.

Some cryptic narration and more than two dozen pop tunes of various vintages provide a fragile frame for the indulgent spree of sports-writer Duke, who drives from L.A. to Vegas with his attorney and partner-in-crime Dr. Gonzo (Benicio Del Toro) ostensibly to cover the off-road Mint 400 motorcycle race but actually, in a larger sense, to rebel against what they see as the plastic, hypocritical nightmare of Nixon’s America by becoming as wasted as possible. The nature of this sort of protest seems less meaningful today than it did then, and the picture does little to make it relevant or plausible for a modern perspective.

Dipping liberally into the drugstore in the trunk of their red Chevy convertible even before they reach their destination, the trim, vacation-wear-attired Duke and the grossly overweight and disheveled Dr. Gonzo arrive in the desert city — where mere possession of marijuana can get you 20 years — and o.d. even before they check into a hotel. Their vision of a Vegas bar as a literal lounge for lizards (courtesy of mon-ster makeup ace Rob Bottin) accentuates the in-your-face visual approach meant to convey altered consciousness, but the boys are just warming up; grass, booze, mescaline, acid, et al., are nothing compared with ether if you want to lose total control, which they do in a subsequent freak-show sequence.

With so much crazed disorientation flung at the viewer in the first couple of reels, one wonders what can possibly follow it. Unfortunately, the answer is more of the same.

Briefly effective flashbacks provide a glimpse of Duke’s introduction to the drug scene in San Francisco some years earlier, and an interlude with Christina Ricci as a somnolent teen who paints portraits of Barbra Streisand exclusively injects a different flavor for a few mo-ments.

But Duke and Dr. Gonzo prove to be uniquely unpleasant characters with whom to spend time, especially as the latter passes out in a crud-filled bathtub or is repeatedly seen barfing into the toilet.

From the characters’ and the material’s skewered viewpoint, everyone is a freak and nothing — except drugs — has any value.

“What was the meaning of this trip?” Duke wonders about halfway through his odyssey, and the film offers not even so much as a tentative answer to this question.

A final slug of narration offers a feeble critique of Timothy Leary’s influential get-high admonition for not recognizing the consequences of indiscriminate drug use, but this seems almost like an afterthought, a tacked-on sop to potential moralistic attacks on the film.

The one semi-sustaining element through it all is Depp’s performance, which lacks the psychological and emotional underpinnings to make Duke more than one-dimensional but still exerts a certain fascination via the actor’s clipped, staccato delivery and unusual body language. All but permanently equipped with aviator glasses and cigarette holder secured by clenched teeth, the pretty boy will unnerve his fans when, upon arriving in Vegas, he doffs his hat to revealed a bald pate, all the better to resemble Thompson. Thesp generally survives the ordeal unscathed.

Same can’t be said for Del Toro, who put on some 40 pounds for the role, all of it seemingly in his belly, but can do nothing to make Dr. Gonzo a coherent character in any way. Numerous well-known actors make cameo appearances, but only Ricci and Ellen Barkin, the latter as an abused, vulnerable diner waitress, stick out from the crowd.

Technically, film is highly accomplished, but in an overproduced way that proves counterproductive.

A sequence that typifies the film’s excess is a simple one of Duke speaking on a pay phone. Instead of just presenting the scene simply and directly, Gilliam has the camera start high and away from the actor, then swoop down in a dramatic crane shot, then pull up and out again in a different direction. The elaborate camera move adds no meaning or significance to the action, but only calls attention to itself and unintentionally advertises the emptiness of the picture.

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas

Production

A Universal release of a Rhino Films/Laila Nabulsi production. Produced by Nabulsi, Patrick Cassavetti, Stephen Nemeth. Executive producers, Harold Bronson, Richard Foos. Co-producer, Elliot Lewis Rosenblatt. Directed by Terry Gilliam. Screenplay, Gilliam, Tony Grisoni, Tod Davies, Alex Cox, based on the book by Hunter S. Thompson.

With

Raoul Duke - Johnny Depp Dr. Gonzo - Benicio Del Toro Lacerda - Craig Bierko North Star Waitress - Ellen Barkin Highway Patrolman - Gary Busey Blonde TV Reporter - Cameron Diaz Musician - Flea Magazine Reporter - Mark Harmon Reservations Clerk - Katherine Helmond L. Ron Bumquist - Michael Jeter Carnie Talker - Penn Jillette Road Person - Lyle Lovett Hitchhiker - Tobey Maguire Lucy - Christina Ricci Judge - Harry Dean Stanton Hoodlum - Tim Thomerson
Camera (Rank Film Labs color, Otto Nemenz Cameras widescreen), Nicola Pecorini; editor, Lesley Walker; production designer, Alex McDowell; art directors, Chris Gorak, Steve Arnold (Las Vegas); set designer, Lynn Christopher; set decorator, Nancy Haigh; costume designer, Julie Weiss; sound (DTS/Dolby digital/SDDS), Jay Meagher; visual effects supervisor, Kent Houston; lounge lizards design and demon effects makeup by Rob Bottin; associate producer, John Jergens; assistant director, Philip Patterson; second unit director, Bruce Logan; casting, Margery Simkin. Reviewed at Universal Studios, Universal City, May 1, 1998. (In Cannes Film Festival -- competing.) MPAA Rating: R. Running time: 119 MIN.

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  1. Yan Tales says:

    Todd McCarthy – you are mentally inept to comprehend above average art. You will most likely be blind to genius if it struck you on the head. Fear and Loathing is a genius work of art, a dream of epic proportions, which had not been met ever since. Most artists were never appreciated in their lifetime, and this movie serves as a vivid example of such generosity overlooked and your review serves merely as an example of a blind ignorance of contemporary art.

  2. “without a story or detectable point of view”

    This quote, I think, is the handle:

    “Strange memories on this nervous night in Las Vegas. Five years later? Six? It seems like a lifetime, or at least a Main Era—the kind of peak that never comes again. San Francisco in the middle sixties was a very special time and place to be a part of. Maybe it meant something. Maybe not, in the long run . . . but no explanation, no mix of words or music or memories can touch that sense of knowing that you were there and alive in that corner of time and the world. Whatever it meant. . . .

    History is hard to know, because of all the hired bullshit, but even without being sure of “history” it seems entirely reasonable to think that every now and then the energy of a whole generation comes to a head in a long fine flash, for reasons that nobody really understands at the time—and which never explain, in retrospect, what actually happened.

    My central memory of that time seems to hang on one or five or maybe forty nights—or very early mornings—when I left the Fillmore half-crazy and, instead of going home, aimed the big 650 Lightning across the Bay Bridge at a hundred miles an hour wearing L. L. Bean shorts and a Butte sheepherder’s jacket . . . booming through the Treasure Island tunnel at the lights of Oakland and Berkeley and Richmond, not quite sure which turn-off to take when I got to the other end (always stalling at the toll-gate, too twisted to find neutral while I fumbled for change) . . . but being absolutely certain that no matter which way I went I would come to a place where people were just as high and wild as I was: No doubt at all about that. . . .

    There was madness in any direction, at any hour. If not across the Bay, then up the Golden Gate or down 101 to Los Altos or La Honda. . . . You could strike sparks anywhere. There was a fantastic universal sense that whatever we were doing was right, that we were winning. . . .

    And that, I think, was the handle—that sense of inevitable victory over the forces of Old and Evil. Not in any mean or military sense; we didn’t need that. Our energy would simply prevail. There was no point in fighting—on our side or theirs. We had all the momentum; we were riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave. . . .

    So now, less than five years later, you can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look West, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high-water mark—that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back.”

    ― Hunter S. Thompson, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas

    That’s from the book I believe…it’s altered for the movie…shortened a bit.

    Suddenly Mr. McCarthy comes into the room, just in time to see the bass player sucking the LSD off Duke’s sleeve with great enthusiasm. He immediately bolts. With a bit of luck, his life was ruined forever. Always thinking that just behind some narrow door in all his favorite bars, men in red woolen shirts are getting incredible kicks from things he’ll never know.

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