"Fear and Loathing in Los Vegas"

Terry Gilliam's 'Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas' captures the crazy soul of Hunter Thompson's twisted masterpiece

Published April 30, 1998 7:00PM (EDT)

| One day when I was in eighth grade, the school degenerate cornered me and reverently read me the opening paragraph of "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas." After that I was permanently changed, and carried a copy around like a horrible dogeared bible for years. I have read and re-read and chewed and digested and stolen from and memorized it more than any book in the world. In other words, I worship "Fear and Loathing" with all my blood and soul and knotted little tendons, and I was absolutely sure that since nobody hired me to write the screenplay, the film was utterly doomed. I entered the theater with my teeth clenched, expecting to see another thing I love infuriatingly drained into flavorless pulp.

Well, folks ... I was massively, squealingly delighted from start to finish, and I wasn't even high.

This could be the greatest film ever made about the sodomizing of the American Dream, Vegas-style. It is as deeply satisfying as only the yowling, primal trashing of several rental cars and hotel rooms while in the grips of a hopelessly depraved ether jag and several sheets of blotter acid can be. Terry Gilliam has captured the fiendish spirit of Gonzo with a huge steel-jawed animal trap. He has created a .357 Magnum turbo amyl-cracking blood-spattering adrenalichrome hayride filled with trapezing wolverines, ominous Christian hitchhikers and profuse Samoan vomiting that truly does the Duke proud (as you can see, I'm campaigning heavily to get this review on the movie poster -- I just want to be somehow affiliated with this movie).

Gilliam has so egolessly orchestrated the genius of himself, Ralph Steadman and Hunter Thompson that it's like watching a legendary jazz trio in which each heavyweight witch doctor knows when to peel off a world-beating solo and then politely back off to vamp and support the other guy while he flexes his peculiar sorcery. He is the only director imaginable who could have correctly realized the checking-into-the-hotel-on-acid scene, replete with bleeding rapist iguanas, sinister carpeting and a concierge with an undulating head.

The unlikely casting choices turned out to be savvy and successful, if not perfect. Johnny Depp surprised the hell out of me again, pulling off his portrayal of the stress-fractured Thompson-as-jibbering-paranoiac with intensely magnified flying mescaline colors. That pretty little man can really act, and he can really act like Raoul Duke, the Thompson character, even though he is, unfortunately, too physically small to capture the heavy physical menace that the huge, lumbering Thompson inspires. Depp's Thompson is a fretful, bowlegged insect, more on the crackpot eccentric tip than evocative of the multiple felon, gun-loving miscreant vibe that collects around The Man Himself. Depp makes Hunter seem almost childlike and reasonable: He's the one holding it together enough to hit the kill switch when the circumstances hurtle toward life-threatening weirdness. Whereas people I know who have been around The Actual Hunter Thompson all speak of him as being pretty unsafe at any speed and making the hair stand up on the back of their necks due to the pregnant heat of his total disregard for social rules. You don't get the feeling that Depp's Raoul Duke would be capable of sudden random violence or shockingly amoral behavior: He's too fragile, with too much of a conscience. Depp's Thompson, while a skilled and pleasing representation, falls a wee bit short of the hair-trigger scariness that any physically powerful, armed, terrified man (Thompson especially) inspires -- but frankly, I can't think of another Hollywood actor who could have done a better job.

Benicio Del Toro, who looks like he bravely DeNiro'ed 40 extra pounds for the role of Thompson's attorney, is even more unintelligible than usual: His enunciation, usually crippled by his nine-pound tongue and Brando palsy, is further confounded by a Chicano accent and the conceit of being on more narcotics than the crowd at Woodstock. As a result, his performance can probably only be understood by aphasics, those who can lip-read through an overgrown Freddie Prinze mustache or fanatics like me who have memorized the book. Still, Del Toro can't be beat for pure atavism; he's a big sweaty mongrel who is capable of inspiring true discomfort and that sinking feeling you get when you know something really, really ugly and out-of-line is going to happen.

There were a couple of things added to the film that weren't in the book that pushed Thompson's keenly balanced hypertension over the plausible limit. Gary Busey's homosexual cop, for example, is a superfluous groaner who does not serve the film: Nobody with any serious love of Thompson is going to buy this breach of his deeply ingrained, old-school homophobia. There were several wasted cameos; Ellen Barkin is inexplicably Hispanic in this film, Mark Harmon is so conventionally handsome and well-spoken that he seems like a fearful slumming tourist in this movie. Thompson, in his cameo appearance playing the Doctor of Journalism himself, is shown muttering under a sun-visor instead of shooting dwarves or peacocks or something more befitting of his oeuvre.

But these are all very small complaints, considering I was expecting this movie to be disgraced by insecure Hollywood execu-thugs who need to stick their worthless, soul-killing 2 cents into everything and don't know when to shut up and let the artists do their work. There were all kinds of depressing stories about the inception of this project: the interminable delays, original director Alex ("Sid and Nancy," "Repo Man") Cox dropping out over "creative differences," etc. -- industry gossip that suggested an abysmal script, the ultimate albatross necktie for a film version of Thompson's magnum opus. Not to mention the conspicuous absence of Hunter Thompson from the project, Hunter Thompson being notoriously absent wherever he is these days.

But incredibly, it seems that for once, Satan's L.A.-based whirling-knife gauntlet of artistic castration accidentally chopped together the right combination, and True Joy has miraculously prevailed. This movie allows for all the important stuff I never thought would make it onto the screen: Moribund paintings of Barbra Streisand, Del Toro's unforgettable macerating of several grapefruits with a large hunting knife, gratuitous Debbie Reynolds romping; trademark Steadman blood-sprays all over the mirrors, the Spanish Maid Scene, the use of a vintage IBM Selectric II, long, uninterrupted, beautiful, un-Hollywood-screenplayesque, ranting Thompson orations on the dignity of the '60s that must have given many an executive producer the night sweats.

This cinematic masterpiece gets an exploding five stars in my book, mostly for being uncompromisingly and devotionally true to Thompson's book. Eight hundred seventeen devil breasts. Eleven thumbs way, way up. Cintra says check it out -- but read the book first for maximum enjoyment. For once, a book and film actually belong together in gleefully unholy matrimony.

By Cintra Wilson

Cintra Wilson is a culture critic and author whose books include "A Massive Swelling: Celebrity Re-Examined as a Grotesque, Crippling Disease" and "Caligula for President: Better American Living Through Tyranny." Her new book, "Fear and Clothing: Unbuckling America's Fashion Destiny," will be published by WW Norton.

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