Something about Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas has always piqued my interest. I was far too young to watch it when it first came out, but of course that didn’t make it any less intriguing to me. Now that I’ve actually seen it, I feel like I might never be old enough for this film. Whatever the case may be, this clearly is not a movie for me. Being the straight-laced, drug-free guy that I am, I feel like it’s hard for me to give a proper assessment of this movie, but I’ll give it my best shot.
First and foremost, I should state that I don’t typically watch these type of stoner movies. I’ve never seen more than a couple minutes of Half Baked, or Pineapple Express, or Cheech and Chong, or the like. Those kind of movies just don’t interest me. What made Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas different and appealing to me was its silliness and its impressive visual and artistic style. It looked like a truly unique experience, and in truth it is one, though it’s not exactly pretty.
I actually read a good portion of the novel Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas a few years ago and I was really enjoying it until loads of schoolwork got in the way. That makes it all the more surprising how much I disliked the film, considering it actually seems like an admirably faithful adaptation.
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is a film based on the novel written by famed gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson that was inspired by his trip to Las Vegas in the early 1970s with his good friend and attorney Oscar Zeta Acosta. It’s an exaggerated tale of their exploits in Vegas, written under the character names of Raoul Duke and Dr. Gonzo, where Thompson was reporting on an annual off-road racing event known as the Mint 400. What ultimately ensues, however, is an excursion of increasingly excessive drug use and debauchery.
The film follows Raoul and Gonzo on their wacky, drugged-out adventure through Las Vegas, and their exploits become more sadistic and haunting as time goes on. From hotel room antics, to major drug binges, and even kidnapping, Raoul and Gonzo stir up a whirlwind of trouble but somehow they miraculously continue to evade the consequences through ingenuity and sheer luck. It feels like there’s never a moment in the film when these two junkies aren’t busy taking some sort of drug. They refuse to get off their high and eagerly go from one drug to the next. It’s an exhausting and tiresome experience just to watch, and I found it to be far more sad than funny.
The movie tries to present itself as a comedy, but apart from an unexpected grapefruit to the head, I don’t think I ever laughed. It has a very offbeat approach to humor. The disappointing thing about it is that I actually found the novel itself to be rather amusing. I suppose sometimes things are just better left to be read than visually seen, as the story and characters are far funnier on the written page than they are in the movie. No matter how comical and ridiculous they might act, it’s hard to laugh at them given their state of being. There’s something about watching this pair of violent, narcissistic degenerates that’s deeply unsettling and unfunny to me. It would be easier to laugh at them if I could brush them off as being idiots, but I can’t because frankly they’re not. These are two very intelligent characters who just happen to be constantly stoned out of their minds by their own volition.
With all that said, I do think that both Johnny Depp and Benicio Del Toro give really strong performances as Raoul Duke and Dr. Gonzo. Both of them really seem to embrace their roles and have a fun time with reveling in the absurdity of these characters and their actions. Therefore any grievances I have with the film are no fault of their own. For the most part, they’re just bizarre and silly and deranged. Personally, I felt as though Johnny Depp was essentially channeling Jim Carrey in his attempt to be comical. The key difference being that I never found Depp to be all that funny, yet I think the darker and more twisted tone of the film is more to blame for that.
At the very least, I can commend director Terry Gilliam for crafting a highly creative and unique picture. With all of their drug binging, the characters experience a plethora of hallucinations, making it a goldmine for creative visualization. The style, the sets, and the cinematography are particularly noteworthy. There are several well-realized, iconic shots throughout, yet it’s not always appealing to look at, as it descends from the glitzy, glorious lights of the Vegas strip into a dark, disgusting, and grungy nightmare. It’s a social commentary on the disillusionment of this so-called American dream. Perhaps that explains the film’s overall pinkish hue, as if it is sarcastically showing you the story through rose-colored glasses.
In short, while I can respect the artistic representation of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, it most certainly does not mean that I also have to enjoy it, nor that I would recommend it. This is a film only for the most adventurous and daring of movie viewers. It’s likely to be too trippy and twisted for your average person, but those of you who are open to an unabashed, immoral, artsy acid trip of a movie might just like it more than I did.