Hunter S. Thompson, inventor of Gonzo journalism, is one of those forces of nature you're glad exists, since life is immeasurably more interesting with him around. But, at the same time, you thank God he doesn't live next door.
"Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas" does a great job of making that point. Unfortunately, it does that in the first 20 minutes, then spends the next 100 pounding it home. And despite the use of every trick director Terry Gilliam has at his disposal -- as always, he has plenty -- the result drags in a way Thompson's prose rarely does.
Johnny Depp, doing a dead-on Thompson impersonation, is Raoul Duke (Thompson's literary alter-ego), a free-lance writer sent by Sports Illustrated to cover a desert road race outside Las Vegas. But for Duke, the assignment is a chance to hit the road with a car full of drugs, a massive Samoan attorney (Dr. Gonzo, played by Benicio Del Toro) whose advice usually involves pharmaceuticals and an anti-everything attitude that made "Easy Rider" seem mainstream.
The road race is dealt with quickly, as a turbaned Duke whips through the desert, a nightmare vision of "Lawrence of Arabia." That's only one of several hilarious scenes in the film: there's also Duke at a conference of district attorneys; Duke and Dr. Gonzo, both way-beyond stoned, winding their way through a circus-themed hotel; and an offscreen Debbie Reynolds preparing to sing "Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band."
There are the bats, which Duke is constantly trying to hide from, and a bar full of lizards. Everything's perfectly warped, testimony to the notion that Gilliam may be the only director alive with the sensibility to do Thompson's prose justice.
Depp's voiceover narration punctuates the film, and is responsible for many of its best moments: Vegas "reeked of formica and plastic palm trees," a group of men are "caricatures of used-car dealers from Dallas," Dr. Gonzo is "too weird to live, too rare to die."
Still, the film keeps on hitting the same note and, after awhile, it becomes tedious -- when it's not simply ugly. Duke and Gonzo are constantly waking up in filth-filled bathtubs; Duke spends the entire movie in a paranoid crouch, as though the sky itself is after him, while Gonzo is alternately throwing up and showing off the world's least-appealing physique (Del Toro is too determinedly unpleasant to ever be funny).
The movie's press notes call its source material "a novel," but that's been debated for more than a quarter-century. When it was published in 1971, Thompson's book was hailed as a masterpiece, if only because no one had ever read anything like it. Fans thought it a perfect capstone to the '60s, an accounting of what happens when a subculture based on unreality is forced to cope with the world as it is. Critics lambasted it as a drug-induced hallucination.
For its audaciousness alone, "Fear and Loathing" deserves a round of kudos. Too bad it's not as compelling as it is brash.
'Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas'
Directed by Terry Gilliam
Starring Johnny Depp and Benicio Del Toro
Released by Universal
Rated R (pervasive extreme drug use and related behavior, strong language and brief nudity)
Pub Date: 5/22/98