FEAR AND LOATHING IN LAS VEGAS
Directed by Terry Gilliam
Written by Gilliam, Tony Grisoni, Tod Davies and Alex Cox
With Johnny Depp and Benicio del Toro
Based on the book by Hunter S. Thompson
To me, FEAR AND LOATHING IN LAS VEGAS looked doomed from the start. One wondered if this was the right time to film it; surely, the early 70s would have been a more congenial time.Then, original director Alex Cox was replaced by Terry Gilliam. As talented as Gilliam is, it was difficult to imagine anyone translating Hunter S. Thompson's hallucinatory narrative into images. It's simply too reliant on drug experiences that can't be depicted literally without looking ludicrous. The goofy trailer didn't exactly do much to sell it, either. Fortunately, the film is much better than I expected, although it's far from being a complete success. It's no BRAZIL, but neither is it WHERE THE BUFFALO ROAM.
Early in their visit to Las Vegas, Thompson (Johnny Depp) and his "Samoan" attorney Dr. Gonzo (Benicio del Toro) visit the Circus Circus casino. The ceiling is a net, above which an acrobatic troupe called the Flying Fellinis struts their stuff. The bar is a revolving carousel. Every corner of the place is stuffed with sideshow amusements: knife-throwing games or a man with his entire body tattooed. This club is a good metaphor for the film itself. It's excessive, certainly, but never boring. Every corner is stuffed with detail, every face is a cartoon and we never get enough time to see the entirety of the set.
No less than BRAZIL, FEAR AND LOATHING is a triumph of production design and overall weirdness. Unlike BRAZIL, however, it tends to emphasize these over story. The "plot," such as it is, is a series of dazed encounters between the spacy/paranoid/aggressive Thompson and Dr. Gonzo and the outside world, in which the perpetually dazed duo abuse a wide variety of substances, as well as any hapless tourists unfortunate enough to cross their path. Thompson's excuse for being there is a writing assignment to cover a motorcycle race; when the race turns into a dustbowl (and his beer into a cup of sandy brew), he quickly gives up on trying to cover the race in any kind of conventional sense. Their addled states of mind are conveyed with a variety of techniques: extreme close-ups, tilted camera angles, distorting filters or simply bizarre costume and production design. (One can almost imagine Christopher Doyle behind the lens.) Gilliam manages to make the spectator feel like he or she's also going on a bender. It's a visceral look, so visceral that one wonders if Gilliam wanted someone to get seasick. No wonder Dr. Gonzo spends half the film puking!
The grotesqueries of FEAR AND LOATHING don't come entirely from Thompson's head. The duo can't turn on a TV set without seeing footage of the Vietnam War, and Nixon's ugly visage follows them everywhere, at one point leaping across the room towards a tripping Thompson. As J. Hoberman noted in a VILLAGE VOICE review, the film's contempt for Las Vegas is "deeply unfashionable. Oblivious to the Rat Pack revival, Gilliam is unrelentingly hostile to the swinging, grown-up entertainment of the era." In that same issue of the VOICE, Gilliam opined that the film describes "a reaction against the wrong turn that the world had taken, puncturing the dreams of the 60s, taking the edge off the romantic sense of possibility in America." To push the point, he includes a flashback to 1965 San Francisco. The flashback is touching, but the film's occasional musings on the death of the 60s dream seem disconnected from the bulk of its content. It seems to be reaching towards a larger statement that it never quite gets around to making; I see two guys partying very heartily, not a search for meaning and possibility. (This is probably a measure of my own distance from the 60s. Maybe you had to be there, psychologically if not temporally, in order to get the connection.)
Despite its flaws, FEAR AND LOATHING IN LAS VEGAS does a faithful, unapologetic job of putting Thompson's vision(s) onscreen. It's one of the most adventurous studio releases in years. Had the book been filmed in 1971, I don't know how successful the results would have been. (One can dream about a version shot by Dennis Hopper as a follow-up to THE LAST MOVIE.) But I suspect they would've resembled Gilliam's film. That may be the greatest compliment one can pay it.