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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 Jerry Saravia
No Rating Supplied

I have always wondered what it would be like to make a film about two drug addicts who do nothing more than consume drugs through an entire movie. Okay, that would be Cheech and Chong's "Up in Smoke," but that was a comedy. "The Doors" was about an unlikable, boorish addict who got high on the idea of death. You might also think of the superbly giddy "Boogie Nights," which showed more scenes of drug use than any movie ever made. That is until I saw the wildly off-balance spectacle of Terry Gilliam's "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas," a putrid, excessive assault on the senses. Excess doesn't even begin to describe this odyssey. This is more like enduring a bad road trip while stuck in New York City traffic. The scenery may be nice, but it's hell to sit through.

On the basis of Hunter S. Thompson's cult novel, the adventurous Johnny Depp plays the bald-headed journalist (known here as Raoul Duke) who goes to Las Vegas to cover a story on the Mint 400, a desert motorcycle race. Thompson brings his Samoan attorney, Lazlo, also known as Dr. Gonzo, to Vegas. Duke is less interested in the race, though, than in smashing up hotel rooms - an eerie reminder of Depp's own real-life tabloid tales. In the trunk of their car, they carry every drug known to man, including uppers, downers, laughers, acid, mescaline - you name it, they got it. They start seeing visions of reptiles, giant bats, faces morphing into weird shapes, raging demons and other grotesque hallucinations. And it was around this point that I started to lose interest in the movie.

Don't get me wrong. I have no problem with films showing the abuse of drugs and the effects of excessive consumption. "Trainspotting" was one film that showed the pleasure and the danger of heroin addiction yet it was instilled with a sense of purpose and a sense of humanity. "Fear and Loathing..." is basically about addiction, but it does not reveal much about the addicts. To put it another way, the depiction of drug use is all on the surface, and there's no theme underneath to support it. The histrionic performances do not help the one-sided material.

Depp is a gifted, talented actor but his interpretation of Duke is reduced to a series of tics, double-takes and wild-eyed nausea. He doesn't even seem to be a journalist, and comes across more as a caricature (occasionally depicted in the Doonesbury comics) with no inner surface or humanity. He's a drug freak, nothing more.

The same can be said for Benicio Del Toro as the extremely wasted Dr. Gonzo (a name more applicable to Thompson) who doesn't do much with his role except yell countless obscenities while emoting a singularly angry expression throughout. Another detriment to this actor is his constant muttering - I couldn't grasp one syllable of what he said. Clarity and nuance are not exactly in Del Toro's vocabulary.

The best moments in "Fear and Loathing..." are the comic set pieces, such as Duke's inability to avoid paying for his hotel room; Gonzo's hilarious attempt to convince an underage girl (Christina Ricci) that he's being watched by the FBI; a scared blond hitchhiker (Tobey Maguire) who runs away from the duo; and the pièce de résistance: a drug enforcement conference where the Duke is ingesting LSD instead of covering the event for his paper.

One of the quietest scenes in the film featuring a dour Ellen Barkin as a diner waitress who harbors a certain contempt towards customers, including the leering Dr. Gonzo. It's a terrific scene, flawlessly timed and edited, but what does it have to do with the rest of the movie?

There are some clever cameos by other actors including James Woods, Mark Harmon, Lyle Lovett and, best of all, Gary Busey as a lonely highway cop who asks Duke for a kiss. In the end, they are part of a menagerie of trivial, witless sequences with no structure or meaning. Somehow, none of this resembles Thompson's prose.

"Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas" is directed by Terry Gilliam (Twelve Monkeys), a former Monty Python comic, who is best known for his bizarre, overrated film, "Brazil." Gilliam's main problem in past directorial efforts was his tendency to waver from one extreme visual cue to another. It worked for "Twelve Monkeys" but it was detrimental in "Time Bandits." Perhaps, he is the perfect director for Thompson's surreal novel - the film is shot with extreme wide-angle lenses that greatly distort the reality on screen. Thompson, however, didn't just emphasize distorting reality. He also wanted us to see the world through his eyes, including the "fear and loathing" of living and searching for something in the 1970's. All we really get in this film is the distortion.

Copyright © 1998 Jerry Saravia

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