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Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998)

March 10, 2010

7/10 Gonzo Road Trips

How Hunter S. Thompson lived for as long as he did, I truly don’t know.

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is about a journalist and his attorney who drive on down to Sin City in the early ’70s with a trunk full of uppers, downers, screamers, laughers, rum, tequila and the dreaded ether while on assignment from Rolling Stone to cover a dune buggy race. Before long, the dune buggies take a backseat as these two maniacs spend their little vacation expanding their minds in near-fatal ways on their journey to chase down “the American Dream”.

First time I saw this, I had no idea who Hunter S. Thompson was. As a result, I really had no idea what to make of what this thing or what I was supposed to get out of it. All I knew by the end was that drugs are bad and I should stay the hell away from ether, and if for some reason I ever do find myself tripping balls on ether, I should stay the hell away from carnivals.

Then I got familiar with Thompson. I read through the source material, loved the source material, saw the movie again and had a whole new appreciation for it. My suggestion: hit up the library and follow suit, it makes all the difference in this instance. It’s not about the book being better than the movie (which it incidentally is), it’s just about getting it.

See, this a weird fucking movie, about as weird as a hyper-real, drug-induced nightmare can be without having dead babies crawling on the ceiling a la Trainspotting. This headlong voyage into strange is both the strength and weakness of this movie as director Terry Gilliam does a pretty bang-up job of taking what a lot of people considered an unfilmable novel and turning into something terrifyingly real.

Gilliam does that a lot. That’s why Gilliam kicks ass six ways from Sunday.

But that’s the thing about Fear and Loathing, that for all the ways it does justice to the novel from a visual and narrative standpoint, the whole tone is totally different. In the book, all the drug-fueled trips, hallucinations and hysterics come off as hilarious, entertaining and all the while insightful. It’s not exactly a hey-kids-drugs-are-fun kind of experience, but the overall vibe is more reminiscent of Half-Baked than Requiem for a Dream. The movie, on the other hand, starts out funny enough, but eventually morphs into a dark, depressing haze that’ll make you want to stay away from scratch-and-sniff markers let alone a freshly rolled doobie.

This isn’t really Gilliam’s fault either, it’s just that a lot of what makes the novel funny instead of grim is Thompson’s voice, and even though a lot of the narration in the movie is ripped verbatim from Thompson’s pen, something was lost in translation. Such is often the case when the real driving force behind an awesome book is the guy or gal writing it rather than the story they’re actually telling.

But that’s my only hang-up with this movie. Johnny Depp is freakin’ dead on in every way an actor can be as Thompson’s alter-ego, Dr. Gonzo, Benicio del Toro is quite convincing as Gonzo’s violent Samoan attorney, Raoul Duke, and there’s a handful of cameos by future A-listers Christina Ricci, Cameron Diaz and a balding Tobey Maguire thrown in there for good measure.

Garey Busey, Flea from the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Hunter Thompson himself also make appearances, and if that doesn’t sell it for ya’, Busey is gonna rip your endocrine system right out of your body.

If you know about Thompson, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is definitely something to appreciate and, despite its flaws, Gilliam does a solid job of bringing to the screen one crazy ass Vegas vacation that makes The Hangover look like a lazer tag party at Chuck-E-Cheese. For those who don’t know Thompson, get familiar, stay the hell away from bat country, then go ahead and prep yourself for two hours of sheer insanity.

16 Comments leave one →
  1. March 10, 2010 11:47 am

    yeah, maybe i need to read up, last time i tried to watch this it just gave me a headache and i turned it off ten minutes in. still sitting on the dvd shelf though. in between Clue and Big Business

  2. Sarah permalink
    March 10, 2010 2:09 pm

    Wow. I JUST watched this on Saturday. Then I searched on your website right after to see if you had written a review. But there was none.

    And now here it is. You’re like psychic or something!

    I didn’t really understand the movie, but I still liked it. I’m going to try to find the book.

    Thanks for writing such awesome reviews.

    • March 10, 2010 2:29 pm

      Haha, no problem. Thanks for reading and hope you dig the book!

  3. March 10, 2010 3:14 pm

    “Few people understand the psychology of dealing with a highway traffic cop. A normal speeder will panic and immediately pull over to the side. This is wrong. It arouses contempt in the cop heart. Make the bastard chase you. He will follow.”

    Speaking of cameos I had jury duty in Vegas with Penn Gillette.

    • March 10, 2010 3:17 pm

      Haha, love that scene.

      Crazy run-in, dude. Who’d Penn kill this time?

      • March 10, 2010 5:59 pm

        It was actually a death penalty case about a drug deal that went bad and someone got killed. I was excused several hours after Penn did. He was really friendly guy considering it was jury-duty.

      • March 10, 2010 6:36 pm

        Cool. But I think we both know who was really behind that drug deal. That Penn seemed a little too friendly if you ask me…

  4. March 10, 2010 4:20 pm

    This movie is far better if you know who Thompson is. I just finished a book about his life called GONZO… you gotta check it out. It’s all told in short bursts by the people who knew him… many of those celebrities and politicians. Good stuff!!!
    The quote I actually identify with (cause I’ve been there, boys and girls):
    “We were somewhere around Barstow, on the edge of the desert, when the drugs began to take hold.”

    • March 11, 2010 11:45 am

      Haha, sounds like an awesome read. Heard some stories about the guy from YouTube clips of John Cusack and Johnny Depp, had me cracking up. Been meaning to watch the documentary “Gonzo” about him that came out a couple years ago, heard it was great. Now might be the time I finally get around to it.

  5. March 10, 2010 8:30 pm

    My first time seeing this too I didn’t get a damn second of it. I’m glad after doing a little reading becoming a little more accepting to alternative storytelling, I’m able to appreciate this as more than just an insane acid trip.

  6. March 11, 2010 12:30 am

    The Hangover is such an overrated movie especially when compared to this. Good review as always!

  7. March 11, 2010 9:17 am

    Barstow. Probably the worst town Ive ever been to. And Ive been to Basingstoke.

  8. Branden permalink
    March 11, 2010 4:41 pm

    I gave the movie that same rating when I saw it. It was an enjoyable film, but the visuals and the absurdities held back from loving this movie.

  9. March 11, 2010 5:14 pm

    It seems like alternative and strange storytelling but you have to understand that THE MAN WAS BAT-SHIT INSANE and took drugs EVERY DAY!!! On that level, it’s just as good at telling part of Hunter’s story as something like a Walk The Line or Ray… not that those were very good! 🙂

    • March 11, 2010 5:19 pm

      Man, never thought to compare this to Walk the Line or Ray, but hey, I get it. The man was truly fucking nuts, but he was so freakin’ awesome. Never gonna be another like him.

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