Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998)

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998) – “The only chance now, I felt, was the possibility that we’d gone to such excess that nobody in the position to bring the hammer down on us could possibly believe it”

For seven too-brief decades, Dr. Hunter S. Thompson walked this planet. The man had issues, for sure, but he also had gifts. The Good Doctor had a penetrating insight into the cultural zeitgeist of the time and also a way with words. No wonder that there’s been fascination with his works in the movie industry. Back in 1980 Art Linson tried and failed to bring Thompson to the screen with Where the Buffalo Roam, starring Bill Murray. That film seemed to mock the antics of a wacky drug user and drunk than share the way he observed the world around him. (Though it is not an adaptation of Thompson’s work, I would also like to heavily recommend Alex Gibney’s 2008 biographical documentary Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson) In 1998 though, another mad genius took a stab at it. Terry Gilliam first rose to a level of fame as the sole American member of Monty Python, being the one responsible for the unfathomably bizarre cut-and-paste cartoons that made up the show’s transitions. Having segued into film-making through such unhinged and visually stunning films like Brazil, Time Bandits, The Fisher King, and Twelve Monkeys, Gilliam was the perfect man for the job.

Johnny Depp, in perhaps his most iconic role (suck it, Jack Sparrow), plays the on-screen stand-in for Thompson: Raoul Duke. Sports Illustrated (never named) sends him to cover the Mint 500 motorcycle race in Las Vegas. His attorney, Dr. Gonzo (played by Benecio Del Toro and based on Chicano attorney Oscar Zeta Acosta) tags along for a drug-fueled journey “into the savage heart of the American Dream.” There is many a small supporting role from the likes of Tobey Maguire, Craig Bierko, Cameron Diaz, Katherine Helmond, Gary Busey, Christina Ricci, Chris Meloni, Michael Jeter, Jenette Goldstein and Ellen Barkin as well as cameos by Flea, Lyle Lovett, Penn Jillette, Verne J. “Troya,” and the Good Doctor himself, but overall this is a two-man show. Depp nails Thompson’s speech patterns and mannerisms perfectly. Del Toro is a savage and terrifying force of nature. The effects are trippy as fuck (appropriately) and the atmosphere puts you right in the warped frame of mind appropriate for processing this kind of story.

There is much humor in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas related to drug-fueled antics but it never comes off as shtick-y as it did in Where the Buffalo Roam, possibly because the spirit of the work is still present. Many people erroneously see this film as being only about said antics, like it’s a great film because some dopers freak everybody out. That’s not really where this film’s head is at. It’s more a spiritual successor to Dennis Hopper’s 1969 classic Easy Rider, specifically that scene towards the end around the campfire when Peter Fonda says “we blew it.” Las Vegas is seen as almost emblematic of the death of the American Dream and the 1960s counterculture that was supposed to fix everything accomplished nothing. There’s a cynicism in this movie that’s kind of sad. Before Gilliam was the director of this film, Alex Cox was set to direct (due to litigation, he still gets a screenwriting credit). Now granted I’ve only seen two Cox movies (Repo Man and Sid and Nancy) and they’re both from the 80s but I’m not sure he could handle that melancholy in the film’s tone (though those films aren’t exactly uppers). I think the proper collision of mad geniuses Thompson and Gilliam was catching lightning in a bottle. Add in the dead-on casting and you have a classic.

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