At the Movies with Alan Gekko: Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas “98”

MPAA Rating: R/ Genre: Psychedelic Satirical Black Comedy Road Film/ Stars: Johnny Depp, Benicio del Toro, Tobey Maguire, Ellen Barkin, Gary Busey, Christina Ricci, Mark Harmon, Cameron Diaz, Katherine Helmond, Michael Jeter, Craig Bierko, Lyle Lovett, Flea, Christopher Meloni, Harry Dean Stanton, Troy Evans, Jenette Goldstein, Verne Troyer, Gregory Itzin, Laraine Newman, Penn Jillette, Hunter S. Thompson; Voice of: Debbie Reynolds/ Runtime: 118 minutes

It may be perhaps one of the most brilliant and delightful unions of a filmmaker and a project that I have ever seen dear reader. A union that consists of a brilliant madman’s riveting, maniacal, and engrossing story from the 1970’s, and the surreal, equally as brilliant and mad, individual who brought that story to life in the late 90’s. Indeed I think it is safe to say therefore that Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas truly does equally fit both its original author Hunter S. Thompson, and distinct yet iconic film helmer, and member of Monty Python, Terry Gilliam absolutely perfectly. Yet even though the late celebrated icon’s 1972 novel and the unique filmmaking auteur’s subsequent adaptation in the late 90’s have managed to split audiences firmly down the middle in the time since with some being revolted and others being thoroughly fascinated, both have also managed to become quite successful in finding their own little niche in the world of pop culture as well. Indeed whereas some have made the claim that the labyrinthesque story being told by Thompson and the twisty and topsy-turvy adaptation by Gilliam go absolutely nowhere, there is an almost equal number of people who feel that both the book and film adaptation are truly iconic to say nothing of completely mesmerizing. Above anything else however, I do feel that, even after all this time has passed since Thompson first started his trip there in the desert near Barstow, that both have been gifted with an unlikely magnetic factor that continues to draw in both reader and viewer in equal measure. Yet the question still remains: does this nut house comprised of equal parts mescaline and ether go one toke over the line too many into bat country and emerge with little if anything to show for it? Perhaps to some viewers, but no way to others. Regardless it should be noted that while it’s in the wild and crazy journey that both book and film really come roaring to life and make their mark on the world, but it’s in the downright absurdity of everything else that makes the story so intriguing and the downright insanity of everything plus terrific work from both Johnny Depp and Benicio del Toro in the lead roles, a game cast of literal cameo roles, and from the visionary mind of Terry Gilliam at the helm that truly make this truly unique vision worth watching time and time again.

The plot is as follows: Based on Thompson’s book “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream,” which was really a pair of articles that Thompson wrote for Rolling Stone Magazine in the 70’s, the story follows a man by the name of Raoul Duke. A man who, among other noteworthy attributes is a balding journalist who also happens to have a literal CVS of illegal narcotics contained in the trunk of a rented Chevy Impala and his dear friend, attorney, and also borderline sociopath when under the influence of drugs Dr. Gonzo in the co-pilot seat as he is driving to Nevada in the sun-drenched desert in order to go to Las Vegas to cover a prestigious race in the sport of motorcycling. Yet as we soon learn, courtesy of both action and voice-over dialogue, Duke honestly has very little desire to be covering the race, and would rather do anything but during his time in Vegas. To that end, we soon witness our intrepid hero, whilst under the seemingly never-ending influence of a whole host of narcotics, manages to haul his just as out-of-it pal to any casino, club, hotel, or wherever that will let them in the place and manage to leave a trail of chaos and anarchy in their wake and even succumb to a series of bizarre and downright frightening at times hallucinatory moments. Yet whilst all of this is going on we also get to witness Duke and Gonzo cross paths with an intriguing assortment of people including a frightened hitchhiker, an amicable and way too overzealous photographer, a seasoned and weary fellow journalist, a young painter with a fondness for Barbra Streisand, a flirty female reporter, an exasperated cop, and a slew of other eccentric cameo roles that this film has managed to delegate to anyone in Hollywood who showed even the slightest hint of interest. Of course those parts don’t even begin to include the cannibal lizard-people, desk clerks with the head of an eel, the wolverine-holding circus performers, and invading soldiers that seem to overwhelm Duke during his drug-fueled moments. Suffice it to say therefore that by the time this trip is done you will never look at Vegas the same way again and you will probably think twice before engaging in any substances that might get you anywhere close to the level these two dimwitted wonders manage to get to during what is supposed to be a typical press assignment during a typical weekend in Vegas…IF you can even call such anything that these two undertake during the course of this film typical.

Now it should be noted that this film can be absolutely exhausting and just downright draining at moments. Indeed I say that because this topsy-turvy Dante’s Inferno-style trip is, in many ways, a truly reprehensible and gut-punch of an attack on every single sense you have if not a relentless river of both repulsiveness and debauchery that doesn’t want to give the viewer a single minute to even breathe a sigh of relief. Yet even with that in mind, Gilliam’s twisted take is intriguingly mesmerizing in its maliciousness. Indeed he manages to take such assertive charge of the reigns being handed him by Thompson that it is actually quite difficult to resist at the least a peek into his twisted sense of imagination. Suffice it to say then that those of you who are able to get through at least the first 20 or so minutes of the movie will be more likely to make it through to the end. As for those who are left befuddled by Duke’s rants about bats whilst also looking for the nearest emergency exit should just go ahead and find something else to watch before this movie completely robs you of your senses for a while. I say this because from a swampy hotel suite that looks like a place where Shrek and Fiona could have stayed for a romantic weekend to the madcap antics and behaviors displayed by both Depp and Del Toro, Gilliam manages to literally cattle prod the audience from moment to moment and bank more than anything on their interest in the extremes being showcased in order to justify their price of admission into this LSD-laced carnival fun house. Not only that, but he delivers no apology for what we see though it’s not like he wants our forgiveness in the first place, and moves full speed ahead with a sense of near-sighted ambition and is willing to completely disregard anyone he deposits on the wayside. Be that as it may be though, it is in this courageous and unflinching depiction of Duke and Gonzo and their insane shenanigans that this distinct film auteur manages to find his footing and the film its impact. Indeed this may be a film that is continually testing the limits, if not smashing through them like an 18-wheeler, of what constitutes as “good taste”, but it manages to accomplish this with such confidence and guts that the film really seems to have a life all its own. Indeed while I may at times have to be in just the right mindset and/or attitude to watch this film, I am always glad I do and above all I can most definitely see on full display Gilliam’s skill as a filmmaker and as a screenplay writer and, just as crucial, I can see the 110% commitment level from the cast that Gilliam has brought together to bring this truly unique story vividly to life.

Speaking of the performers, I guess you should know by now that when it comes to their roles in this film, Depp and Del Toro are no less than either human Looney Tunes or hurricanes personified (I’m still not sure which). Indeed by fulfilling the word maniac in every way that is humanely possible, this dynamic duo are so locked in, so persuasive, and so able to step into their characters’ mescaline and tequila drenched shoes that the rest of the movies desires to rise to the level of their performances in this. Indeed even if you either adore Gilliam’s skill or abhore his insanity-laced shenanigans from the beginning all the way to the end, it would still be quite difficult to say that Depp and Del Toro do not completely become the characters of Duke and Gonzo respectively through and through. I mean this is a situation where if either the actor’s facial or bodily actions were not completely sunk into this abyss, then the rest of the film would fall apart easily. Yet Depp and Del Toro bring a skill and dedication to these dazed, befuddled, and quite out of it pair of guys that move the minimal narrative found forward and it is their intense concentration and focus on making these guys as real as possible that help them somehow become, don’t ask me how, quite riveting albeit loony to the hilt protagonists. Yes the actors, much like their characters, tip toe constantly across the fine line of likability and respectability, but they still manage to keep these intrepid duo as appealing as they possibly can. Of course I guess it should be noted that they are aided immensely by a fair amount of hypnotic voice-over narration, delivered wonderfully by Depp which also ingeniously gives Hunter S. Thompson’s own psyche a front and center role in everything going on, but these are still 2 truly incredible turns from 2 truly gifted actors. Now don’t get me wrong, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas isn’t for everyone (heck even those who find something to enjoy in this film’s topsy-turvy Wonderland on LSD-style world may not want to add it to their collections), but I can most certainly promise that this film will give you an experience like few other films out there. Thus if nothing else, please give this demented roulette wheel a spin and see how you fare. Who knows? You might score the jackpot and really “enjoy” yourself.

All in all I guess it should come as little to no surprise to learn that Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas may not be for everyone, but in all fairness how honestly could you hope to make this particular adaptation suitable for the audience that would enjoy something like say Sonic the Hedgehog for example? With that being said however, I think it is safe to say that there will be four distinct groups that will enjoy and cherish the absolutely heck out of this: those with a love for gonzo and balls-to-the-wall cinema, those who absolutely adore and cherish the filmography of one Terry Gilliam from his work in Monty Python to Time Bandits, Brazil and 12 Monkeys, those with an appreciation and respect for Hunter S. Thompson and the work that he did, and those who just want to watch something that I can promise you is most certainly not something that you see every day in the world of cinema. Not only that, but Depp and Del Toro’s distinct performances are a true whirlpool of delightful madcap insanity, the cameo roles are all spot-on both in execution as well as in the thespian in that particular role, the screenplay nails both the equally iconic as well as timeless nature of the book, and the work in the visual department…oh dear readers, the mad-hatter style visual work here is truly unforgettable. Suffice it to say then that Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas may not be everyone’s quart of tequila or case of beer, but for those who would like to make a stop here, even IF this is bat country, you will not be disappointed. On a scale of 1-5 I give Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas a solid 4 out of 5.