This is the best acid-inspired movie since Roger Corman’s THE TRIP – and it is a darn sight more accurate in its depiction (at least according to the experts I have consulted – obviously, I would not know anything about this personally). The film captures the highs and the lows, the terrible confusion alternating with moments of crystal clear lucidity, the fun and excitement that gives way to paranoia. In a nutshell, “doctor of journalism” Raoul Duke (pseudonym for author Hunter S. Thompson, played by Johhny Depp) gets an assignment to cover a motorcycle race outside Las Vegas. Thinking the story not worth his time, but eager to take advantage of the expenses paid by his magazine, Duke and his “lawyer,”Dr. Gonzo (Benicio Del Toro), turn the assignment into a drug-filled odessesy – equal parts LSD, ether, and alcohol.
Director Terry Gilliam puts you right there within the experience. Although not entirely a subjective film, FEAR AND LOATHING presents its lead character’s hallucinations – including Dali-esque melting carpets, literal lounge lizards, and demonic mutations – with as much clarity as as the “real” surroundings, until the two blend seamlessly together. Using dark lighting, wide-angle lenses, and canted camera angles, Gilliam wants to make you feel as if you are taking the trip, too, not merely sitting back and laughing at the antics of these stoned characters. If you refuse to surrender to the surrealism of the distored scenery, then the film is tremendously off-putting; however, if you are willing to descend into the darkness, the result can be quite rewarding.
The unstated premise that carries the weight of all this drug-filled excess is that, in the crazy world of 1971 – in the post-Woodstock era of disillusionment, of Vietnam and Nixon and unreasonably cruel and unusual anti-drug laws – the only sane response to the greed and glitter of Vegas is to get completely bombed out of one’s mind and reamin in that state for the duration. But the film is not a simple glorification of drugs. Rather, it is a sad, desparing elegy for the lost idealism of the ’60s. Midway through, Duke reflects back on the San Francisco scene of six years before, recollecting a time when the anti-war movement united youth across America into thinking they were part of something bigger than themselves that would inevitably lead to victory, though not in a “mean or miltaristic sense,” because the energy of the wave they were riding was too positive for that. Now, standing in Vegas, Duke imagines he can look West and see the high-water mark where the wave finally crested, and then receded, leaving only disappointment in its wake. Also, at the very end, Duke states that Timothy Leary made a greivous mistake when he tried to expand the consciousness of America’s youth with LSD. Expanding consciousness makes one more aware, and to Duke’s thinking, the realities of life are too dismal to bear greater awarenss of them. The sentiments expressed, far from being empty moralizing – i.e., socially redeeming value meant to justify the disreputable proceedings by denouncing them – carry the weight of true sense of loss.
Despite these qualities – and a performance by Deep that is always interesting and inventive, even though the character is more or less the same from beginning to end – the film is not a total success. Some scenes go on past the point they are trying to make – unless you want to be really kind and imagine the point is that drug users quickly outwear their welcome. Also, as the film progresses, the behavior of Duke and Gonzo goes beyond boorishiness into outright offensiveness. Thompson, writing from the inside, might have been forgiven for simply presenting his scenes unjudgementally; Gilliam, however, had a duty to be outraged on behalf of the characters victimzed by this drugged-out duo, particularly Ellen Barkin’s waitress, who has a knife flashed at her by Gonzo when she tries (quite understandably) to throw him out of her restaurant. I personally advocate the decriminalization of victimless crimes like recreational drug use, but threatening someone with a knife hardly qualifies.
By conventional standards, this film does not amount to much: there is little in the way of narrative, and the characterizations, once established, develop little further. Its virtues have more in common with the work of REPO MAN’s Alex Cox (who left the project after developing an earlier version of the script with Tod Davies, some of which survives the rewrite by Gilliam and Tony Grisoni) than with that of Terry Gilliam – being a sort of objective, amoral look at a bizarre subculture. Perhaps a low-budget version directed by Cox would have better captured the sensibility of the material and appealed to a cult audience who would have embraced the film. As an attempt to reach a mainstream audience, this is a complete failure, but those willing to go along for the ride should enjoy the trip.
FEAR AND LOATHING IN LAS VEGAS (1998). Directed by Terry Gilliam. Screenplay by Terry Gilliam & Tony Grisoni and Tod Davies & Alex Cox. Cast: Johnny Depp, Benicio Del Toro, Tobey Maguire, Ellen Barkin, Gary Busey, Christina Ricci, mark Harmon, Cameron Diaz, Katherine Helmond, Michael Jeter, Penn Jillette, Craig Bierko, Lyle Lovett, Flea, Laraine Newman, Harry Dean Stanton, Tim Thomerson.
Copyright 1998 by Steve Biodrowski. This review originally appeared in the print version of Cinefantastique magazine.