Monday, June 11, 2012

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas - 1998

"Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas" - 1998
Dir. by Terry Gilliam - 1 hr. 58 min.

Official Trailer

by Clayton Hollifield

Having read the book, I understand why "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas" was considered "unfilmable" for many years.  It definitely required Terry Gilliam's unconventional approach in order to work, but it's also definitely not a film that's going to please everyone (it failed to make back its budget at the box office at the time).  And if not for the independent boom in the 1990s, I'm not sure anyone would have tried to make this film.  But thank goodness Gilliam did.

Plot?  Well...  In a literal sense, Hunter S. Thompson, or maybe his alter-ego Raul Duke (Johnny Depp), is hired by a magazine to go to Las Vegas to cover a motorcycle race.  He takes his lawyer, Dr. Gonzo (Benicio Del Toro), and Duke does a pretty ineffective job of covering the race.  But the film is more or less about the feeling of having things go sour for the Baby Boomers, and recognizing it as it was happening.  There are a pair of monologues by Duke in the film, one explaining the high-water mark of the Summer of Love, and a second about how just five short years later, everything had seemed to go to Hell.  The fact that this is told through the haze and spectacle of Duke and Gonzo's never-ending drug bender, which just amplifies Las Vegas' natural weirdness and artifice, is very appropriate, since much of the feeling of how things were changing and the Boomers were winning were also fueled by narcotics.

And I can't stress the degree to which drug-use is the basis for this film.  There are points in the film where whatever is supposed to be happening stops and visual manipulation takes over.  There's an early scene where Duke and Gonzo have to check into a hotel when their LSD is peaking, and while the characters are barely functioning, Gilliam does a fantastic job of conveying their disorientation.  Some people in the hotel bar turn into lizards, the designs on the carpet begin swirling and overtaking people who are standing around, unbothered, and Duke is paralyzed in fear.  Honestly, it's almost redundant to talk about the drugs, because they're omnipresent, and as a viewer, you quickly become accustomed to things going very, very wrong.  You don't even question it when Gonzo is tripping, and demands that Duke throw a plugged-in tape recorder into the the bathtub full of water that Gonzo is laying in.  Or when Gonzo pulls a knife on a waitress at a off-strip diner.  Or any of another dozen ways that Gonzo and Duke behave in a way that should end in certain incarceration, but never seems to get to that point.

While you may, as an upstanding citizen of unquestioned moral fiber, naturally recoil from such barbaric behavior, it does serve a very specific purpose in telling the story of how the hippies didn't change the world in the way that they had intended.  The fact that the source material was published at a point when people might not have been aware of that also matters.  It takes such a depraved pair to point out that things are amiss precisely because they do not have anything to lose by doing so.  These animals, living second to second, don't have a mortgage to worry about, and stand in direct opposition to law and order (witness the police narcotics convention that Duke and Gonzo attend).  There's nothing that would entice them to put blinders on and keep on believing that everything was going to be okay.  As Duke writes, there was a point at which they all believed that, and thought that just their belief that things were changing for the better through their mere existence would be enough to preserve that state of bliss.  For whatever reason, the lack of maintenance of their ideals quickly turned the tides, which were receding to the previous status quo.

That high-minded (in every sense) message is the foundation of the movie.  But what makes it work is that "Fear and Loathing" is essentially an existential comedy of errors, one where the characters keep failing and seem to suffer no consequences for it.  It's a drug-addled buddy movie, a petty crime story of narrow misses.  If you don't get that message, you can still enjoy Gonzo and Duke, messed up on ether, boggling at a stand-in for Circus Circus as broad comedy.  What makes this different than a Cheech & Chong movie is that this isn't a pair just looking for good times, Duke and Gonzo are hell-bent on pushing themselves as far as possible.  Far past enjoyment, far past good times, to the point where Duke is questioning his very purpose in life.  And then Duke takes some adrenochrome, wakes later up to find his hotel suite is wrecked and flooded, and that he's wearing a giant lizard tail and has a microphone attached to his face with electrical tape.  Bit by horrific bit, he pieces together what had happened.  All that's left at that point is to finish his article and get out of Vegas.

"Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas" is a challenging film, and a rewarding one.  There are easy pleasures to be had (the distinct visual approach and a parade of cameos of notable actors among them), but they're buried in a parade of largely indefensible behavior and copious drug-use of every stripe imaginable.  Further, the message that the film is conveying isn't a feel-good, happy-ending one, and that message is one that applies to society at a large, not just Gonzo and Duke.  However, it's a perceptive story, and the acting is both incredibly odd and specific, while also being consistent throughout.  One of my friends joked that "Fear and Loathing" ought to be shown in high-schools as an anti-drug film, and that's pretty accurate.  I can't imagine many people seeing this film and thinking that it's something to emulate.  But "Fear and Loathing" is one hell of a ride, and it's a damned fine piece of cinema.

4.5 / 5 - Blu-Ray

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