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FEAR AND LOATHING IN LAS VEGAS(director/writer: Terry Gilliam; screenwriters: Tony Grisoni/Tod Davies/Alex Cox/based on the novel by Hunter S. Thompson; cinematographer: Nicola Pecorini; editor: Lesley Walker; music: Ray Cooper; cast: Johnny Depp (Raoul Duke), Benicio Del Toro (Dr. Gonzo), Donald Morrow (Narrator), Christina Ricci (Lucy), Ellen Barkin (Waitress), Tobey Maguire (Hitchiker), Harry Dean Stanton (Judge), Gary Busey (Highway Patrolman); Runtime: 120; MPAA Rating: R; producers: Patrick Cassavetti/Laila Nabulsi; Universal Pictures; 1998)
“About as enjoyable as a bad trip.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Terry Gilliam’s (“Brazil”/”Twelve Monkeys”) inventive adaptation of Hunter S. Thompson’s gonzo novel about his drug taking abilities and classless behavior in the Las Vegas of 1971 is energetically portrayed and makes for a good looking film and one that is rather faithful to the spirit of the 1971 book and accurately captures the flavor of its time period (even reminding us that Nixon was the arch-villain of the hippie community back then), but it still doesn’t prevent it from being an unpleasant and tacky film that exploits weirdness as if that alone would equal creativity. The pace was too frenetic for its own good and though containing some brilliant moments, it was too stuffed with things happening in a series of rapid vignettes whereby the comedic antics were often lost in the haste. Overall it was incoherent and about as enjoyable as a bad trip. This is the kind of view of druggies that gives them a low consciousness rating among the public and a bad name.

The film is clumsily explained in a mock serious narration by Donald Morrow at an anti-drug conference and the rest of the way by Depp’s voiceover in an absurdly humorous fashion.

In 1971, according to Thompson the turning point in the drug culture before things went from free-spirited fun to a crack epidemic frenzy of nastiness.

Journalist Raoul Duke (Johnny Depp) is off to Las Vegas to cover a motorcycle race for Sports Illustrated, bringing along his heavy-set Samoan lawyer friend, Dr. Gonzo (Benicio Del Toro), along with a frightened hitchhiker (Tobey Maguire) and a trunkful of drugs, which is ingested by the riders nonstop. The bald Depp is a fictional version of Thompson (his alter ego) and Del Toro is his crazy far-out sidekick. Gilliam spends his time trying to relate this counterculture experience with complex and bizarre visual imagery to get you to see what was going on inside the heads of the druggies, and he seems to be having a blast interpreting the drug-hazed world of Duke and Gonzo. Yet the joy often doesn’t transfer over to the viewer, as the joke here becomes the clash of cultures between the garish Vegas scene (the bad guys of the Perry Como world) and Thompson’s hip scene (the good guys of the Rolling Stones world). The Thompson clones are into gross-out exploits such as trashing rooms, vomiting over the luxurious Vegas trappings of material success, and going through LSD hallucination experiences to blur the lines between reality and the fictional world where most Americans are at. American expatriate Gilliam takes pleasure in ridiculing his native country, as the journalist searches for what is the American dream by becoming part of the story.

Though there were some laughs to be had, this stream-of-consciousness psychedelic classic book is not an easy one to put on film and as a result much of it was not digestible or watchable. Gilliam’s true success in “Fear and Loathing” is to create a really raunchy film that unconventionally takes a crack at digging into the dark excesses of the American dream. But the trouble is the characters are just too weird to relate to and they seemed to have fallen too far off the planet to be thought of as anything more than weird.

The film’s most illuminating scene comes near the end when Dr. Gonzo offends a diner waitress (Ellen Barkin), who quickly regrets talking back to him. The lawyer pulls a knife on her and reduces her to a frightened wreck. The scene made it clear that these hedonistic druggies were not really likable (or really the good guys) but were selfish misfits masquerading as hipsters and spending their Vegas time intimidating the help and the defenseless squares encountered. For me, this scene alone took away any sympathy I might have had for them and reduced their trip to a senseless one and the movie to a pointless one.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”