"Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas" (1998) Review
There are three books I truly love.
There are three books that I can pick up from any chapter, any page, any sentence, and know almost exactly what has happened before that moment, and what's going to happen after. There are three books that I read obsessively while I was in high school and revisited in college. The first was Kurt Vonnegut's "Slaughterhouse Five," a book I finished reading in a single frenzied day at my family cabin in northern Michigan. The second was Douglas Adam's "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy," one of the few books I originally listened to on tape that I think is as good on tape as it is to read (Stephen Fry's voice is the definitive voice of that book and always will be).
You can probably reasonably guess what the third is. "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas" is Hunter S. Thompson's odyssey through the corpse of the American dream is a literary hellscape, parts Looney Tunes slapstick, brutal crushing horror, and drug-addled introspection. It's one of my favorite books I've ever read, and maybe one of the most misinterpreted works I'm deeply in love with.
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas as a film (and slightly as a novel) suffers from what I'll call "Fight Club syndrome." Both works are anarchically entertaining, and so entertaining that surface level viewings/readings of both works lead people to endorse the behavior of its horrific characters, not understanding that depiction is not endorsement.
That's all worth getting out of the way to really dive into Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas as a film, an adaptation that should not work on any conceivable level but miraculously does. As a fan of the book, I'm in awe of what the film does with its source material. It's a slavishly devoted adaptation, and any parts of the book that have been left out are reinstated in the backgrounds of other scenes from the book. It's an adaptation that represents and remixes the book's best material, only outright omitting one major detail in the form of playing the song "Sympathy for the Devil" by The Rolling Stones.
For those unfamiliar with the novel and the film, the story concerns journalist Raoul Duke (Johnny Depp) whose most recent assignment is to cover an off-road race in Las Vegas called The Mint 400. The entire endeavor is immediately thrown off to the side as his "attorney" Dr. Gonzo (Benicio del Toro) joins the trip, along with enough illicit drugs to last a year. Except they blow through most of them before twenty four hours are even up, leading to a skin-crawling experience that lays itself out in mostly vignette form.
It's worth saying that Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas when strictly viewed as a film on its own merits and separated from its source material is kind of only slightly coherent. The film moves at a breakneck pace, but with no clear destination and no (immediately) clear point. That's a lot like the book, but again, as a movie, it's definitely off-putting.
That's where Terry Gilliam's direction steps in the most. Gilliam's output for the last decade has been decidedly mixed in quality, but Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is one of the strongest cases for Gilliam as a director. His animation roots are in full swing as he stages visual gags on top of visual gags on top of visual gags, often all happening at the same time in the same long take. It's deliriously complicated and puts you directly in the center of the paranoid drug user mind-set, and uncomfortably so. The art direction, lighting, and ridiculous camera moves heighten the reality so much that it feels like it's all going to burst out of the screen.
What really sells Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas though are the two lead performances, Johnny Depp's Raoul Duke and Benicio del Toro's Dr. Gonzo. This is arguably Depp's best performance in his entire career, and while he might seem like a living cartoon, any footage of the real Hunter S. Thompson (who makes a truly fantastic cameo in this movie) will quickly reveal just how much Depp nailed the performance. Bizarrely enough, he ends up being the movie's "straight man" in a way. The loosest description of this film is a "buddy road movie," and if Depp is the straight man, than del Toro is the twisted version of the "comic relief."
Except that... Well, his Dr. Gonzo is a perfect translation of the character from the book. Which means he's cartoonish too, except that he's like if the Tasmanian Devil actually showed up in the real world. Which, if you think long and hard about, would be truly scary, especially if the Tasmanian Devil was abusing mescaline and cocaine constantly. I think there's an argument to be made that Benicio del Toro's performance might be the best in the entire movie, if only because of how effortlessly terrifying he is. He's one of the most repugnant characters I've ever seen in a movie and I still wonder how del Toro so easily nailed the performance.
There are a slew of great cameos and sequences throughout, but the big question is this: Does all of that add up into a good movie?
As far as depicting the collapse of American counterculture through the prism of borderline horror comedy, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas works beautifully. It's definitely an acquired taste, and I do recommend reading the book first because I really do think that this is one of the best direct translations of a book to film I've ever seen. It just might do its job a bit too well, but I do know people who loved the movie so much that they finally read the book, so maybe you'll actually enjoy this movie.
Or, you definitely won't, because this has some one of the most disgusting smash cuts to a guy throwing up in a toilet I've ever seen in any movie ever.