Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas
There was a time, long ago, when Hunter S. Thompson was cool. Tripping on acid, mescaline, and ether, diving into outlaw subcultures and reporting on his experiences in obsessive, poison-dart prose that made him sound like a Jack Kerouac who wanted to hurt you, Thompson, in the early ’70s, brought a scandalous new nihilism kicking and screaming into American life. Along with such kindred kamikazes as director John Waters and proto-punk rocker Iggy Pop, he drew on the freedoms of the counterculture only to attack those freedoms from the inside, raining holy terror down on the ’60s ideal of hedonism without hate. For him, freedom wasn’t beautiful; it was weird and sick and twisted. It was gonzo.
Gonzo is one of many words to describe Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (Universal), Terry Gilliam’s stridently outrageous adaptation of Thompson’s 1971 two-guys-on-the-fast-lane-to-nowhere saga. Some other words might be witless, hysterical, monotonous, inexplicable, and excruciating. The movie is a true folly, yet there’s no denying that Gilliam has gotten some of the hallucinogenic madness of Thompson’s novel on screen. He turns the drug-addled, demon-haunted adventures of Thompson alter ego Raoul Duke (Johnny Depp) and Duke’s portly Samoan attorney, Dr. Gonzo (Benicio Del Toro), into the ultimate bad-trip road movie.
Shot in an MTV-on-peyote style of wide-angle paranoia, with the gaudy bad taste of Vegas melding into the upset-stomach decor of the characters’ psychedelic visions, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is a frowsy, surrealist freak show in which Duke and Gonzo stumble through hotel rooms and casinos jabbering barely coherent gibberish, vomiting into toilets, and generally behaving like bottom-feeding psychotics. Depp, sporting ugly flowered shirts and a bald dome, a cigarette holder clenched between his teeth, a glower of hostile anxiety turning his face into that of an angry bug, gives a physically daring performance as the deadpan, spasmodic Duke; he suggests Jack Webb in the body of Groucho Marx. The trouble is, he barely seems human. (Bill Murray got closer in the 1980 Thompson movie Where the Buffalo Roam.) Del Toro, beer-bellied up for the role, buries his charisma along with his handsomeness, coming off as a lumpy frat-house loser.
The movie is a joyride for masochists, yet it raises a question: Is this simply a disastrous adaptation, or does its maniacal indulgence fail because it’s true to Thompson’s words? A little of both. Gilliam seals us off from any connection to his hell-bent antiheroes. His vision is too reflexively comic to evoke the shadows of dread in Thompson’s writing. What he has caught, all too well, is the spiritual deadness. As a book, and now a movie, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas remains a stoned celebration of emotional indifference. For a while, that was cool. Now it’s boring.