No other film this year has divided critics and general
audience alike as much as "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas."
Negative criticism including comments like "if you can possibly
avoid seeing this movie, do," and "does not translate well
from book to screen" and "just one damn event after another."
Positive input included comments like "at least as hilarious as
the book," "an absolute hoot," and "Johnny Depp and Benicio
del Toro play off against each other better than Don Quixote
and Sancho Panza."
The nays have it. Hunter S. Thompson's classic 1971 book
about a hip journey into the square American dream may
have been required reading on many college campuses,
holding for itself the status that J.D. Salinger enjoyed with
"Catcher in the Rye." The screen version is something else,
principally since the chief attribute of the book--the way the
narrator keeps you reading relentlessly ahead by his dense
verbiage--comes across visually in a fragmented course. The
movie is really just one scene after other, giving the
impression that each tableau could form the basis of a
separate narrative, but the images just do not gel as
segments of a 128-minute work. Johnny Depp's off-the-wall
performance is a one-note business. Dangling a cigarette in
a holder as though he were developing an antenna to
communicate to the world, he is so unable to speak in a
coherent voice that the narration by another actor is essential.
Given his body's penchant to be an entire pharmaceutical
company, his use of tobacco comes across as overkill.
Benicio Del Toro does a more complex job as the overweight
Samoan attorney (he is a Chicano in the book), repeating the
injunction "speaking as your attorney I must advise you..."
each time launching into counsel that makes you sympathize
with Shakespeare's recommendation, "First let's kill all the
"Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas" is about a journalist,
Raoul Duke, who in the late sixties is disappointed in the way
America is heading and disgusted with the leadership of
President Nixon. He defensively develops an affinity for
drugs, which he considers "hip." His are the people who will
bring about a greening of America by trashing the absurd
squareness of the silent majority. Heading with his attorney,
Dr. Gonzo (Benicio del Toro), to cover a motorbike race for
Sports Illustrated, he decides that the best journalistic truth
comes from fiction--from a disposition to hype what the
reporter finds in order to highlight its meaning. As the two
men drive from L.A. to Las Vegas, the home of the American
Dream with its icon, the impossibly square Debbie Reynolds,
they proceed to trash their hotel rooms, skip out without
paying their bills, and generally subvert the culture of the
square by living close to the edge.
Thanks to special effects technology, director Terry Gilliam
(of Monty Python fame) is able to illustrate much of the
hallucinogenic images conjured up by the disillusioned Raoul.
In the most highly publicized scene, Raoul visits the lobby of
a large Las Vegas hotel filled with the square, those who
eschew psychedelic drugs in favor of the martini. The tourists
turn into lizards who, in Raoul's imagination, are not engaged
in civilized banter but rather are a sad bunch of Godzilla-like
creatures smacking their lips in banal, animalistic and
meaningless chatter. In yet another scene, one involving a
convention of district attorneys discussing the subject of
dangerous drugs, director Gilliam makes good use of Michael
Jeter, who describes the evils of the weed without believing a
word he says--as though he were telling his audience of law
enforcement officials that the convention is a farce and that
they're all there to play the roulette wheel, not to insure that
the nation goes sober.
Two scenes are almost an embarrassment: one in which
Dr. Gonzo introduces Raoul to Lucy, a jail-bait pickup played
by Christina Ricci who has latched on to the much older man;
and another featuring an almost unrecognizable Ellen Barkin
as a waitress in a greasy spoon who realizes too late that she
should not have stood up to these two psychedelic guys, one
of whom threatens her life with a huge hunting knife.
Hunter S. Thompson's book, which is classified as non-
fiction, is a frenzied description of his own trip to the American
Dream, the author himself later becoming as muddled as his
Raoul and who, like J.D. Salinger, retreated from the world to
a remote village. Terry Gilliam, who, like the writer enjoyed
his own peak of success but later dwindled and faded, has
been unable to realize Thompson's point of view--to depict the
world of hip America just before the great disllusionment. You
leave the theater wondering why the most intelligent guy in
Danny Boyle's movie "Trainspotting" tells us "imagine your
best orgasm and then multiply it by one thousand" to describe
the pleasures of illegal drugs. What is the great pleasure
attached to watching the hotel floor shimmy and shake, your
best friend turn into a Mephistophelean buffalo, and tourists in
a cocktail party turning into lizards?
Copyright © 1998 Harvey Karten