FEAR AND LOATHING IN LAS VEGAS (1998)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 58 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Pervasive Extreme Drug Use and related Bizarre Behavior, Strong Language, and brief Nudity

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Directed by: Terry Gilliam

Written by: Terry Gilliam, Tony Grisoni, Alex Cox & Tod Davies

(based on the novel FEAR AND LOATHING IN LAS VEGAS by Hunter S. Thompson)

Starring: Johnny Depp, Benicio Del Toro, Tobey Maguire, Gary Busey, Christina Ricci, Cameron Diaz & Christopher Meloni

FEAR AND LOATHING IN LAS VEGAS didn’t do well upon release (grossing little over half its budget back) and surprisingly garnered a large cult following shortly after. However, it shouldn’t surprise many that this film is highly divisive. Like another movie that came out in the same year and similarly went on to be a highly regarded cult classic THE BIG LEBOWSKI, FEAR AND LOATHING lacks a solid three act structure. It’s a plot that wanders aimlessly for two hours, but the joy of spending time with these wacky characters and the surreal atmosphere makes this an entertaining experience for anybody who doesn’t mind an unconventional plot that’s more of an excuse to show frantic goings-on.

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Raoul Duke (Depp) is a journalist with the hot assignment of following a Las Vegas desert race. His lawyer, known simply as Dr. Gonzo (Del Toro), advises on renting a fast car and bringing a limitless supply of extreme drugs and narcotics. The two wind go to Vegas and get high off their asses. They travel to different casinos/hotels/theaters, encounter various oddball people, and wind up in a couple of tense circumstances (wrecking more than one hotel room along their way). Like I stated before, FEAR AND LOATHING isn’t so much about an interesting story as it is about spending time with these two lunatics (mainly Raoul Duke, as his inner monologue lays each situation out for the viewer) and laughing your ass off at their antics. It will either work for you or it won’t. It charmed me into liking this bizarre film based on the drug-fueled ravings of an author who pretty much went through the exact same experiences that Duke goes through in Vegas. The old saying of “write what you know” is very apparent here.

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Terry Gilliam is known for his weird sensibilities and quirky style. With off-center camera angles, various special effects, and two highly capable actors in the center roles, Gilliam has brought to life a mere two-hour film that gives the viewer the exact impression of what it feels like to be on drugs. I felt like I was high without ever once having to drink, smoke, snort, or inject something potentially dangerous into my body. This film might be described as the safest drug experience you’ll ever have and it’s legal. Through the script (also co-written by Gilliam, among three others) and direction, Gilliam captures paranoia, hallucinations, danger, fantasies and pleasure that come through Raoul Duke’s illegal adventure. The excellent choice of songs are a nice touch too.

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The biggest issue that many people might find annoying and did decrease some of my enjoyment/interest in FEAR AND LOATHING IN LAS VEGAS is the lack of a flowing plot. The many appearances by big name celebrities ebb and flow through comedic scenes, some of them work and others don’t. Tobey Maguire as a disheveled nervous hitchhiker, Cameron Diaz as a reporter in an elevator, Gary Busey as a Nevada desert cop, and Christina Ricci is an artist of Barbara Streisand paintings. These are among many faces that quickly pop in and leave the film just as fast as they appeared. The story may be frenetic and an excuse for a series of drug-fuelled experiences in a city full of gambling, shows, and all sorts of craziness. Depp’s ranting and raving narration puts the viewer squarely into his life, which makes everything as coherent as it can be given the circumstances that frequently venture into hallucinations and hazy memories. It’s still enjoyable for anyone who loves Johnny Depp, the writings of Hunter S. Thompson, Terry Gilliam’s filmography, or all of the above.

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According to Terry Gilliam, Hunter S. Thompson was freaking out during his first viewing of FEAR AND LOATHING at a test screening. When asked about his vocal reactions and wild response to this adaptation of his work, Thompson related that it was like living the whole hellish experience all over again. With that seal of approval, you know that FEAR AND LOATHING greatly accomplishes what it set out to do. However, your enjoyment will purely depend on what that means to you. Frankly, I have never done drugs, drank or smoked and don’t plan on it because these things are simply not for me. FEAR AND LOATHING IN LAS VEGAS is a wonderfully weird cinematic experience that puts you in the constant drug-addled mind of its main character. I can definitely understand the love for FEAR AND LOATHING IN LAS VEGAS (like the love for the similarly wild BIG LEBOWSKI) and appreciate the cult following it has gained, but I only like the film. It’s one I will definitely watch again in the future, but I’ll have to be in the mood for it. FEAR AND LOATHING is the closest thing the world will get to a legal form of binging on ether, pills and other hallucinogenic drugs.

Grade: B

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