Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (Terry Gilliam, 1998)
Journalist Raoul Duke (Johnny Depp), with his (very sharp) knife-wielding lawyer Dr Gonzo (Benicio del Toro) at his side, a loyal ally in their war against grotesque humanity (well, until the drugs kick in and the paranoia starts, then all bets are off), whose primary advise for Duke is to join him in consuming massive quantities of illegal substances (be they uppers, downers, psychedelics, or any other mind-altering chemicals, including eventually some kind of adrenal fluid the good attorney claims was extracted from a live victim that Duke ends up taking way too much of – not that either of them are particularly moderate with anything else out of Gonzo’s impressively loaded briefcase) speed, convertible-style, across the desert to Las Vegas with the goal of ostensibly covering a popular motorcycle race. As the mind-bending drug mania takes hold, the paranoia and violent hallucinations mount to what one can only assume are unrepairable levels, with the duo stumbling through a neon glittering town that’s garishly dehumanizing in the most clear-minded of states (though, let’s be clear, as far as I’m concerned, there is only pleasant wonder to be found in the happy shuffling tones of Vegas icon Tom Jones that the soundtrack keeps returning to), with Gonzo introducing a dangerously desirable (and I mean that from the legal standpoint) vulnerable lost young runaway (Christina Ricci) into their hazy maniacal lair (with Gonzo feeding her some LSD before realizing she’s never tripped before), the duo suddenly finding themselves covering a district attorney’s convention, doing their best to discreetly snort cocaine as a hysterical ‘anti-marijuana’ film plays to the a very stiff and imposing crowd of law enforcement, and Duke, waking in total confusion at one point, managing to gather his wits just in the nick of time to stop the still mid-bender Gonzo from slicing up the poor unsuspecting room service boy.
Let me say that, while I deeply adore, with great grinning amusement, this blackly comic celebration of excessive no-holds-barred drug use and wildly irresponsible behaviour (how did a major studio actually release this film??), and find the spinning surreal atmosphere of chaos, monsters and the occasional midget (it is Terry Gilliam after all – don’t really get the midget obsession, but it’s his thing I guess and allows some smaller people acting gigs, so who am I to judge) a visually exciting and enjoyable example of Gilliam at his bonkers best, I also don’t feel for a moment that the filmmaker has any real affinity for the truly mind-wrenching (and dirty) experience of tripping out on drugs (or reveal any aptitude for capturing it on film).
While Gilliam displayed a wonderfully bent mind with his irreverent cut-out animation as part of the irreverent Monty Python’s Flying Circus (with Gilliam being the British comic troupes only American member), his cinematic visions of the wild fluctuations and terrifying hallucinations of the drug crazed high come across on par with his lead actor; Depp plays a character modeled entirely after drug-imbibing, gun-toting libertarian wild man and original gonzo journalist (and author of the supposedly autobiographical book the film is based on) Hunter S. Thompson, with the bald-pated, frantically twitching and mumbling actor delivering one of his by now quite familiar (to any who have seen him in most of his Tim Burton roles) performances that’s basically all surface antics and no depth.
Again, I’m not saying I don’t enjoy (and admire) the anti-conventional narrative mania of the film and Depp’s performance (and do manage at least a bit of the vicarious thrill of joining them on their wild rides) but it’s clear Gilliam is completely unable, or uninterested in capturing the true sweaty terror, or the nihilistic reaction to an insane society that is the underlying point, that Thompson is after in his book(s).
When Thompson came to counterculture prominence and achieved celebrity status in the early 70’s, the Summer of Love was over; his version of drug taking wasn’t some mind-expanding event to open up oneself and the world to transformation through peace and love, but as a dark paranoid movement where massive excess was the only possible way to bear (and stand toe-to-toe with) a horribly doomed world of freaks and monsters, from the citizens on the street consumed with inanities, to the absurd politicians selling war and twisted lies as easy as sugar-coated breakfast cereals (gee, as if anything’s changed – almost makes me wanna go find some adrenal gland fluid to imbibe myself). Other than paying lip service here and there, with direct quotes from Thompson’s novel, Gilliam doesn’t really capture much of this. He’s more just creating a glossy experience – a wild, unique (he is a cinematic visionary, after all) and stimulating ride – but one missing the nihilistic context that informed Thompson’s work.
It’s del Toro as Doc Gonzo, however, with his mumbling, sometimes barely coherent and crazed performance, who manages some genuine sense of real threat – along with a tortured quality. There’s danger in them there hills, and del Toro finds it, appropriately menacing as he wields that knife, ready to kill out of sheer paranoia, creating something genuinely unsettling even, when he demands Duke drop the radio into his water-filled bathtub to electrocute him at just the moment iconic Vietnam-era singer Grace Slick reaches her most magical operatic point in Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit” (Duke doesn’t do it, of course, leading to the maniacal Gonzo chasing after him, determined to kill him – for a little while, anyway, until the next leg of the drug adventure takes over).
Along with Ricci, there’s tons of cameos by actors clearly looking to get in on the fun, including Cameron Diaz, Ellen Barkin (who convincingly plays a weary looker of a waitress who gets harassed by Gonzo, in a genuinely poignant and memorable scene, elevated – no surprise — by del Toro’s menace – in fact, it might be the best and most real in the entire film), Lyle Lovett, Harry Dean Stanton, Flea from the Red Hot Chili Peppers, and, amongst lots more, of course, Hunter S. Thompson himself (in a very clever bit where Depp’s Duke spots him in a bar and wonders if the older, equally bald-pated man isn’t a vision of his future self).
Now I’m kinda intrigued to see that other mostly forgotten attempt at a cinematic Thompson realization, also a big box office flop upon its release (though without the ensuing cult following that Gilliam’s Fear and Loathing eventually attracted), namely 1980’s Where the Buffalo Roam, with Bill Murray as Thompson (and brilliant character actor Peter Boyle playing the deviant lawyer sidekick)…. and then, while I’m at it, might as well throw in The Rum Diaries (2011), that other failure of a Thompson adaption, also with Johnny Depp.