WFTB Score: 12/20
The plot: 1971. Journalist Hunter Thompson and his pharmacologically-minded attorney Dr Gonzo take a trip to Las Vegas on the pretence of covering a motorcycle race, but actually more concerned with devouring the copious amounts of drugs they have brought with them. The nightmare that ensues takes the pair on a disturbing journey, only partly caused by narcotic intake.
I am not at all familiar with Hunter S Thompson or his 1971 novel Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, but I would assume that for most directors it would come under the category ‘unfilmable.’ Credit then to Terry Gilliam for taking on the task and bringing to the screen with some flair the face-bending, carpet-melting madness of acid, mescaline, ether and God-knows-what-else trips.
Johnny Depp plays Thompson, checking into a Las Vegas motel under the name Raoul Duke, already dosed up to the eyeballs. Protecting him, though scarcely, is friend Dr Gonzo (Benicio Del Toro); together, they thoroughly ignore the motorcycle race taking place in the desert, preferring their own medicine, which reflects the gaudiness of Las Vegas back to them as a warped, psychedelic nightmare. Depp and Del Toro are incredibly good (though I couldn’t tell you how accurate) at portraying the exaggerated mannerisms of drug use, and the distorting lens of Gilliam’s direction conveys the whole queasy ride convincingly. As it should be, the trip is entertaining for a couple of minutes, but beyond this becomes unsettling and nauseating; although Depp and Del Toro are originally entertaining in their extensive necking of drugs (their consumption of ether is very funny), it soon becomes clear that – for Gonzo particularly – it is a dangerous and self-destructive habit. When Gonzo picks up vulnerable youngster Lucy (Christina Ricci), the tone of the picture darkens considerably, as it is no longer merely themselves and the profits of hotels that the pair are hurting.
As long as you can bear the hallucinations as Thompson and his partner flit between hotels on the strip, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is always an interesting film, and not only cinematically. There are plenty of cameos for star watchers, an appropriately acid-tinged soundtrack, and the script, as is to be expected, is sharp and often very funny. Thompson’s subtitle to his novel was A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream, and Gilliam’s film picks up on the fact that Las Vegas, as the ultimate distortion of American ideals, is nightmarish enough (perhaps too nightmarish) without the use of drugs to heighten the experience. It also picks up, during a well-written respite from the drug-induced carnage, on the feeling of decay prevalent at the time, the hippy idealism of the mid-60s having burnt out, leaving America with the spectres of Nixon and Vietnam hanging over it.
It’s entirely possible, however, that you won’t be able to bear the hallucinations, and if the bar turning into a roomful of lizards doesn’t put you off early on, the second major adrenacol-powered binge, which sees Depp waking up in a devastated, flooded room with a tape recorder and a tail strapped to him, might. The film will not be to everybody’s tastes, and even those who enjoy the opening may find the second half a bit much (the pair attending a police conference on narcotics may well have been rooted in fact, but still feels like a rather clumpy joke). If you are at all curious, I recommend giving Fear and Loathing a try; I enjoyed it much more on a second viewing than on my first, and unlike the practices it portrays the only long-lasting effect it can have is an extended feeling that you have watched something very, very strange.