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Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas

movie reviewmovie review out of 4 Movie Review: Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas

Starring: Johnny Depp, Benicio Del Toro
Director: Terry Gilliam
Rated: R
RunTime: 120 Minutes
Release Date: May 1998
Genres: Comedy, Drama

*Also starring: Donald Morrow, Christina Ricci, Ellen Barkin, Tobey Maguire, Gary Busey, Flea, Penn Jillette, Harry Dean Stanton, Mark Harmon

Review by Harvey Karten
No Rating Supplied

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 lawyers."

"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

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