A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

Movie 507 – Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas

Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas – July 20th, 2011

The other night, at the beginning of Rango, the little Johnny Depp-voiced chameleon at the center of the movie bounces across a highway. He swings off a car antenna, rides a bicycle wheel and smacks into a car carrying a very obvious reference to this movie. And at the time I jokingly said we should watch this next. Then when we were going through our list looking for movies around two hours I mentioned this and we said hey, why not, right? There are a couple of connections beyond the reference, with Johnny Depp and Las Vegas featuring in Rango and in this movie as well. So we put this on and settled in for an evening of hallucinations and monologues.

And really, it’s mostly a lot of Johnny Depp as “Raoul Duke” (a.k.a. Hunter S. Thompson, who based the character on himself) doing a lot of drugs and hallucinating and talking about it. But then there are moments of such depth. There’s the oft-quoted monologue about San Francisco: “So now, less than five years later, you can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look west, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high-water mark – that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back.” I mean, damn. That makes me so sad. It makes me tear up every time I hear it and it’s in the middle of this incredibly bizarre drug trip of a movie. And that’s what makes this movie interesting to me. I mean, it’s visually entertaining, with all of the drug trip visuals, but it’s the mix of drug-fueled antics and behavior and insightful commentary on the culture of the time that makes it more than what it might at first appear.

Truth be told, I’ve been struggling with this review. How do I even begin to touch this movie? How do I explain it? It defies true explanation by its very nature. That’s one reason this review is so late. I mentioned in the morning that I might just recount the dreams this movie gave me. It would be about as lucid as the movie itself. But the dreams are now just a hazy memory. I don’t often remember my dreams for long. But I do remember that they were full of Las Vegas and hotel corridors and confusion. Which I’m sure is par for the course after watching this movie.

I have been to Las Vegas, but my trip was full of Star Trek, not drugs, so it wasn’t quite the same experience as is presented here. The thing is, this isn’t really a cohesive experience. It’s not like this is one continuous drug trip. It’s not one journalism assignment for the main character. It’s not one hotel. It’s not one drug. It’s a series of moments and observations, witnessed and recounted through a haze of recreational chemicals and societal malaise. What makes it so fascinating to me is the combination of irreverent and bizarre moments and serious commentary and action. There’s some truly dark stuff going on in this movie and if all you know of it is the hallucinations near the beginning then you’re only seeing half the story.

Given that the story is so wildly all over the place, it’s difficult to really relate the events in the movie. It’s not a story with a beginning, middle and end so much as it’s a series of episodes showing a certain time and place through a certain filter. The fictional characters Raoul Duke and his attorney, Dr. Gonzo, head to Las Vegas, ostensibly to cover a motorcycle race for a magazine. It doesn’t really matter what race or what magazine. Details like that are incidental to the story. The point is that on the drive down to Vegas the two men take an impressive array of drugs and are thoroughly wasted by the time they get there. And from there the story sort of goes off the rails. But that’s the point. Duke misses the race almost entirely, seeing only the beginning before getting distracted by the LSD and mescalin and ether and the strange world of the Las Vegas strip as experienced with chemical assistance. And I mean, the strip is one of those strange nowhere-else-like-this places anyhow. So the addition of hallucinogens is only adding to the strangeness, not creating it.

Honestly, the series of subsequent events are a blur. And I think that’s intentional. Duke flees the hotel in a fit of paranoia, makes it out of the city without paying for the room (or the damage done to it) and then gets stranded and then goes back and checks into another hotel where Dr. Gonzo has moved to along with a girl he met on an airplane (she paints pictures of Barbara Streisand) and they go to cover a District Attorney convention on drug culture and they do more drugs and eventually Duke wakes up and the new room is a pit and he knows things have gone very wrong. And I’ll be straight here, I’m not entirely sure of the sequence of events. Duke has some flashbacks and I’m pretty sure that the diner scene near the end isn’t one of them but this review has taken me so long to write I could be misremembering. But it’s pretty dark. It’s a very different mood than the earlier scenes of circus-themed casinos full of people who look like fish or whatever. The return to Las Vegas heralds in a very different mood.

I think part of the shift is that it’s a return. That the original trip had been its own thing, fun in a way but ending in paranoia. And the return is tinged with more of that paranoia which is then bolstered by the proliferation of officers of the law. One never gets the impression that Duke really wanted to go back to Las Vegas. It wasn’t an environment he was entirely comfortable with anyhow. And then there he is. The return trip goes down hill very fast, with talk about selling the girl Dr. Gonzo’s brought to the room and then the trip to the diner, where Dr. Gonzo pulls a knife and threatens a waitress with it. It’s a far cry from the beginning of the movie. But at the same time it feels almost like a natural progression. Not a smooth one, to be sure, but a showcase of how things can go from strange to bad to worse to even worse than you ever thought possible. It happens in bits and pieces and part of what the movie does well is to make the audience feel as disjointed as Duke himself is supposed to be feeling. We’re all just along for the ride.

The two key selling points for me here are the cast and the visuals. The writing I take as a given. I’ve never read Thompson but Andy’s been reading the book this is based on since we watched it and he claims it’s pretty much word for word. So what really does it for me are the performances, which are universally fantastic, and the visuals that manage to convey both the reality of Las Vegas and the unreality of the drug-induced visions Duke has at the same time. Johnny Depp is a weird guy, to be sure, and he’s amazing here, but I also have to give a whole lot of credit to Benicio Del Toro as Dr. Gonzo. It’s a thoroughly unlikeable role for much of the movie and he pulls it off amazingly. But then the rest of the movie is peppered with bit parts played by very recognizable names. Ellen Barkin, Gary Busey, Tobey Maguire, Christina Ricci, just to name a few. They show up and have their moment or moments and then they’re gone, because really, as I mentioned, the story is Duke’s (or Thompson’s, if you want to go there) and he’s the focal point. It’s about him and drugs and Las Vegas and really, what more can I say?

July 20, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , | Leave a comment

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas

July 20, 2011

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas

I’m not quite sure how to start out this review. This movie is one that leaves a lasting impression – I’d even say that it is a major accomplishment in film making – but it feels uneven and disjointed. I’ve never been sure if that’s an intentional choice or if it is an inevitable result of attempting to adapt this source material. I mean, did Gilliam make a disjointed film deliberately because that was his vision or did his adherence to the book force him to make a film that didn’t flow in the way most of his movies do? I suppose it doesn’t make much difference.

I’m a huge fan of Terry Gilliam, as anybody who’s been reading this blog could easily tell, and Johnny Depp is astonishing in this as he is in everything he does, but this isn’t their movie, really. This is Hunter’s movie through and through. It’s a movie full of great quotable voice-overs, but they’re all quotes from the book. Depp’s amazing performance channels the mad energy of the famous gonzo reporter as he brings to life this tale of a drug addled rebel assigned to report on a motorcycle race in the Nevada desert outside of Las Vegas.

I enjoy this movie, in spite of its episodic and uneven feel, but it’s difficult to review it for a couple reasons. For one, this is a movie that is all about dealing with a chemically altered perception of the world. In the story Hunter S. Thompson’s mis-adventures in Las Vegas there is a truly implausible amount of drug use. Acid, cocaine, ether, marijuana, mescaline… just about every hallucinogen known to man and some not invented yet is consumed in mass quantities by Hunter and his lawyer Dr. Gonzo. I wouldn’t say that the movie glorifies drug use, but it attempts to show how deranged a man can become if drug use becomes commonplace. My personal experience with illegal narcotics is virtually non-existent, so although I’m fascinated by the twisted world depicted here I don’t have anything to really compare it to in my own life.

My other problem in writing this review is that although I’ve read excepts from the book this movie is based on (most of which are quoted word for word here) I haven’t read the whole thing. That makes it really hard to talk about the things I’d really like to explore. I’m curious about how accurately Gilliam captures the book, and about how much of the movie is directly from the page, but I don’t really have any answers there.

What I can say is that this movie has a wistful, desperate, slightly sad quality to it. My favorite parts of the movie are the more introspective bits where Depp-as-Thompson reflects on the sad fate of the naive movement of the sixties and the ultimate futility of the San Francisco drug culture. That’s part of the problem with the movie, really. It has this this really touching moment about two thirds of the way through the film that feels like it should be the climax, but then Hunter finds himself returning to Las Vegas to cover a district attorney conference on narcotics and the movie limps on for another drug addled forty five minutes or so. Not only does it feel somewhat repetitive, with Hunter trashing another car and hotel room, but it loses that introspective air and gets more and more crazy and desperate. Much of the final act is told in flashback as Thompson attempts to piece together scattered memories of the past weekend, and it just doesn’t feel as honest as the first half of the movie. I strongly suspect that this is exactly the nature of the source material – but I have no way to tell until I’ve read the book itself.

Johnny Depp as Hunter (as Raoul Duke) is absolutely spellbinding. He’s all profound wisdom and spastic insanity and drug fueled paranoia. I love the way that Hunter has written himself into the story as a character in his own drama. (It makes me want to watch Adaptation.) I suspect that there is probably some root of truth in much of this tale but that it is heavily exaggerated for effect, but that’s part of the fun of it. Gilliam does a great job giving life to the ravings of a drug addled mind. There are only a couple actual special effects shots done in post-production as almost all the madness is captured life and in camera. That’s very Gilliam. Then there’s Benicio Del Torro as the nefarious Dr. Gonzo. His performance is even more impressive than Depp’s in many ways because his character is so much less sympathetic. Dr. Gonzo is an instigator, a trouble maker, given to violence and rudeness. Del Torro commits himself to this character with unreserved dedication and provides most of the fuel that drives the plot, such as it is. He works absolutely perfectly with Depp to bring these characters to life.

There is so much about this movie that I really enjoy. It’s a brave film that does a good job of making something unflattering and pretty scary feel real and important. It’s full of wit and dry humor as well as laugh out loud moments. Even so, it is such an uneven and oddly paced movie that it doesn’t completely work for me. I’m going to try reading the book now to see if it helps me to appreciate this movie more.

July 20, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , | Leave a comment