Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (United States, 1998)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

It's too bad the title The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly was already taken, because it would have been the perfect moniker for Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Terry Gilliam's adaptation of Hunter S. Thompson's book (emphasis on "the bad and the ugly" part). It's always a risky endeavor to fashion a motion picture based on an "unfilmable" novel -- even to try demands a director with a lion's share of chutzpah. Gilliam, the American member of the Monty Python troupe, certainly has that quality, but his efforts here have met with what can charitably be called mixed results. From time-to-time, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is darn funny, but those moments of seemingly-inspired humor are more than offset by the rest of the movie, which is nearly unwatchable.

The film's plot is thin, but then the book, which is a stream-of-consciousness affair, is more interested in making pithy observations and developing a tone than in presenting a narrative. One thing Gilliam does well is to capture Thompson's style and unleash it on the screen. However, I'm not sure that's a good thing. After all, there is a reason why books are books and movies are movies, and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas makes a pretty good case that the two don't always mix.

Back to the storyline: Raoul Duke (Johnny Depp), who is a fictional representation of the book's protagonist, author Thompson, is headed to Las Vegas in the company of his "Samoan lawyer," Dr. Gonzo (Benicio Del Toro, looking more bloated than Robert De Niro in the closing moments of Raging Bull). The year is 1971, and Duke's ostensible reason for the journey is to cover the $50,000 Mint 400 Desert Race, but his real motivation seems to be to see how many Vegas hotel rooms he can trash and how many different concoctions of grass, cocaine, alcohol, uppers, mescaline, and acid he can imbibe. After being attacked by hallucinatory bats during the trek across the desert, the pair arrives on the strip before the end of the first reel, checks into their room, and spends the rest of the movie getting stoned and taking the audience on a bizarre visual journey that would make Oliver Stone proud.

I'm sure the idea of the film is to give the viewer the sense of inhabiting Duke's shoes -- that's what all the weird angles, distorted shots, and red lighting are for. However, being in a theater watching a couple of wasted characters is not anything like being under the influence of a mind-altering drug (or so I'm told). It doesn't take long for the movie-goer to recognize all of the visual trickery as a gimmick designed to camouflage the fact that the film doesn't go anywhere: the plot is repetitious and the protagonist is a lifeless caricature.

In this picture, the narrator has more lines than the characters. This is one of those rare movies when the technique of having a narrator works, primarily because every amusing or insightful comment made during the far-too-long running length is contained in the voiceover. Here's where we learn that the message behind Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is to illustrate how 1971 was a turning point in the drug culture -- the year that the innocence and empowerment of the late '60s turned rancid, leaving users burned-out and broken instead of free and flying high. As one might expect, Gilliam also takes a few corrosive shots at middle-class America. The most obvious of these occurs during the film's funniest sequence: an anti-drug "information session" attended by Duke, Gonzo, and dozens of white bread, out-of-uniform cops.

Johnny Depp is the kind of actor who always seems willing to try something new. During his uneven career, he has played everything from Edward Scissorhands to Donnie Brasco. As Duke, Depp gives a wonderful physical performance with no emotional depth. He has the rubber-legged actions of his character right ("a total loss of motor skills... a loss of communication with the spinal column"), but doesn't give us any reason to care about Duke. He's like Steve Martin in The Jerk, only much, much less inspired. Meanwhile, the most impressive thing about Benicio Del Toro is how thoroughly he manages to hide his good looks beneath hair, rolls of fat, and drying bodily fluids. Christina Ricci, the excellent young actress who is continuing her quest to re-shape her image from cute to tawdry, has a small role as an artist named Lucy. There are other cameos as well, including Gary Busey, Ellen Barkin, Mark Harmon, and Cameron Diaz.

One criticism that has been leveled against Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is that it glorifies drug use. I'm not sure how anyone who has seen the film can make that statement, since the movie reduces chronic users to the level of barely-functional zombies awash in degeneracy. Gilliam has said that his intention was to make the film "ugly," and he has achieved that aim. Visually and viscerally, there is a connection between Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and Trainspotting, albeit with two critical differences: the British picture developed real characters and didn't go on and on and on, ad nauesum, like this one.

While I'm not recommending the movie to anyone interested in either (a) mainstream entertainment, or (b) something with a coherent narrative, the film has the look and feel of a picture that's destined for cult status. It's the kind of movie that plays at midnight showings during film festivals and generates a small-but-devoted legion of fans who attend conventions and boast about how many hundreds of times they've watched it. Ultimately, however, while this die-hard group will call Gilliam a genius and genuflect every time his name is mentioned, the rest of us will recall the movie version of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas as a bad trip.

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (United States, 1998)

Run Time: 2:05
U.S. Release Date: 1998-05-22
MPAA Rating: "R" (Profanity, Sexual Content, Drugs)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1