Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas [DVD]
Screenplay : Terry Gilliam & Tony Grisoni and Tod Davies & Alex Cox (based on the novel by Hunter S. Thompson)
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 1998
Stars : Johnny Depp (Raoul Duke), Benicio Del Toro (Dr. Gonzo), Craig Bierko (Lacerda), Ellen Barkin (North Star Waitress), Gary Busey (Highway Patrolman), Cameron Diaz (Blonde TV Reporter), Christina Ricci (Lucy), Mark Harmon (Lacerda), Katherine Helmond (Reservations Clerk)
About midway through Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Raoul Duke, the alter-ego of “gonzo” journalist and cult icon Hunter S. Thompson, is standing in the middle of a Las Vegas casino, completely blitzed out of his mind on any number of drugs, and in the voice-over narration, we hear him asking himself what he is doing there. He is supposed to be there covering a cross-country motorcycle race for a magazine article, but that assignment has been left in a literal cloud of dust at this point. “Am I just roaming in a drug-induced haze?” he asks. “Or am I here to cover a story?”
The answers to those two questions are a resounding “yes” to the former and a “no” to the latter, which applies to the movie as a whole. There is plenty of drug-induced wandering in this film, but there is little or no “story” to be told here. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is little more than 120 minutes of spaced-out wandering through the ugly neon glamour of Las Vegas in the early ’70s. Sometimes described as a quest for the American dream, the movie is based on Thompson’s 1971 fiction-based-on-reality novel (originally published in two parts in Rolling Stone), which caused a huge stir when it was first released and has rested firmly in cult status ever since.
With heavy-handed symbolism (American flags everywhere) and misguided humor, the movie version of Fear and Loathing drags on for nearly two hours (a good half-hour longer than it needs to be), with nothing better to say than, “Isn’t the world funny and crazy when seen through stoned eyes?” The film has a vivacious energy and its opening is quite promising, but it ultimately bogs down into a repetitive cycle that quickly becomes tiresome. It is often incoherent and hopelessly juvenile in its absurdity; in other words, it adheres closely to its source material, which had been deemed “unfilmable” by many, all of whom are now basking in the correctness of their earlier assertions.
When Thompson published Fear and Loathing in 1971, it was a strange time in America: The ’60s were coming to a close, America was deep in Vietnam, and those who sang the praises of mind-altering chemicals were being slapped in the face with the reality of the deaths of Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin. Despite the encroaching realities of the disparity between drug abuse and its fashionable connotations in popular culture, Thompson forged ahead. His darkly humorous and methodically detailed accounts of experimenting with drugs and hurling himself into various situations with the purpose of covering them as part of the press have become counter-culture folklore, which is why various artists have been trying to adapt Fear and Loathing for the big screen for the last 20 years.
In bringing this stoned epic to life, director Terry Gilliam (Brazil,12 Monkeys) does a magnificent job of realizing the era in surrealistic, hypermediated detail. He also tries his best to recreate Thompson’s descriptions of various states of intoxication by employing digital effects, hard red lighting, odd camera angles, twisted views, and some well-done physical humor by his two lead actors, Johnny Depp (From Hell) and Benicio Del Toro (Traffic). There is no doubt that Fear and Loathing has a great deal of energy and unique visual ingenuity; however, it has little worthy to expend it on.
When the films opens, Raoul (Depp) and his Samoan “attorney,” Dr. Gonzo (Del Toro), are in a red convertible ripping through the desert between L.A. and Las Vegas. The trunk is filled with every controlled substance imaginable, from marijuana, to cocaine, to acid, to ether. Once in Las Vegas, they proceed to trash two hotel rooms, snort cocaine at a convention of drug-enforcement officers, and pick up a Lolita-ish nymphet (Christina Ricci) who paints portraits of Barbara Streisand. Dr. Gonzo also tries to commit suicide by having Raoul drop an electric tape player into his grimy bath water, and Raoul suffers numerous acid hallucinations, including one amusing sequence where the lounge lizards in a Vegas bar literally turn into lizards.
Depp plays Raoul to the hilt, incorporating all of Thompson's trademark quirks: the shaded glasses, the cigarette-holder always clamped firmly in his teeth, the balding dome, the spastic, drug-addled mannerisms (interestingly enough, the only other actor to play Thompson on-screen is Billy Murray, who starred in 1980’s ill-received Where the Buffalo Roam). Without doubt, this is Depp’s most comical performance since he played another societal misfit, filmmaker Edward D. Wood, Jr. in Tim Burton's Ed Wood (1994).
While Depp makes Raoul into a fairly loathsome, but nonetheless amusing caricature, Del Toro turns Dr. Gonzo into one of the most repulsive physical characters in recent memory. Maybe it’s because he’s saddled with having to vomit on-screen at least three times in close-up detail, or the fact that Del Toro packed on at least 40 pounds of excess flab for the role, but Dr. Gonzo comes off as so grotesque that you would swear he leaves a greasy stain on the screen. His typical lawyerly advice is: “As your attorney, I advise you to rent a convertible and make sure you have plenty of cocaine.”
The problem with Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is that it is essentially a long-running joke that is about as funny as being locked in a bathroom with a retching drunk for two hours. Unfortunately, Gilliam and company seem to think there is something comical here, and they treat the movie with cartoonish glee. Fear and Loathing brings to mind Trainspotting (1995), another darkly humorous film about drug culture, but only because the latter feels so superior in its understanding of the ultimate dilemma of drug addiction, its development of characters worth caring about, and its ability to balance the humorous pathos with the searing social reality. Fear and Loathing is lacking desperately in all those areas.
The film’s original director,Alex Cox, was removed only a few weeks before production began. Cox is probably best know for the cult classic Repo Man (1984) and the intriguing and sympathetic Sid and Nancy (1986), which dealt realistically with heroin addiction. One has to wonder what he might have brought to Fear and Loathing. Could he have made it into something less ridiculous and more surface-penetrating? Unfortunately, Gilliam, whose specialty is bizarre and surrealistic films with harsh satirical edges, seems to have seen Thompson’s book as simply a grand excuse to make a tripped-out visual farce that offers little more than its gaudy-sleazy surface.
|Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas Criterion Collection Special Edition Two-Disc DVD Set|
|Distributor||The Criterion Collection / Home Vision|
|Release Date||February 18, 2003|
| 2.35:1 (Anamorphic)|
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas features a pristine new director-approved anamorphic transfer taken from the 35mm interpositive. The virtually flawless transfer creates a fantastically detailed image, bringing out all the strange nuances of Terry Gilliam’s madhouse depictions of the film’s various locations, from the scorching, sun-drenched desert, to the queasy darkness of various hotel rooms and lounges . Colors are beautifully rendered, with strong primary tones and solid black levels.
| English Dolby Digital|
5.1 Surround English DTS 5.1 Surround
This disc features both new Dolby Digital 5.1 surround and DTS 5.1 surround soundtracks remastered from the original six-track masters and digitally cleaned up. Both soundtracks are clean and vibrant, with nice separation on the sound effects and a thundering presentation of the late ’60s and early ’70s rock classics that dominate the soundtrack.
| Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas was previously released on DVD back in 1998 in a nearly bare-bones edition (it featured little more than a trailer and a “Spotlight on Location” featurette). Criterion has gone back and given it the deluxe two-disc treatment, culling together an extensive and eclectic set of supplements. |
Three audio commentaries:
Deleted scenes with commentary by director Terry Gilliam
Collection of storyboards and production designs
Johnny Depp/Hunter S. Thompson Correspondence
“Hunter Goes to Hollywood” short documentary
“Not the Screenplay”
Original theatrical trailer and TV spots
Oscar Zeta Acosta, Dr. Gonzo
Ralph Steadman art gallery
Excerpt from 1996 Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas audio CD
Fear and Loathing on the Road to Hollywood BBC documentary
©1998, 2003 James Kendrick