|Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas|
|HD DVD Drama|
|Written by Bill Warren|
|Thursday, 01 March 2007|
Hunter S. Thompson is often credited with radically altering modern journalism; he’s also credited as the source of Uncle Duke in the “Doonesbury” comic strip. And not long ago, he was credited, all too accurately, with his own suicide. When you fly to close to the sun, you tend to burn your wings, but instead of going down in glorious flames, Thompson had long since immolated at least his reputation. He went from a gonzo journalist—his own term—of incredible insight and floods of stream-of-consciousness reports on a wild variety of topics, to a burned-out, somewhat creepy has-been.
After a variety of directors, including Martin Scorsese, had passed on directing a movie version of one of Thompson’s best-known books, “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,” Alex Cox picked up the reins and engaged Jack Nicholson and Marlon Brando as stars. But Cox left the project due to the standard “artistic differences,” Nicholson and Brando faded out, and Terry Gilliam was handed the project at last-minute notice.
Hunter S. Thompson himself suggested Johnny Depp to play him, or rather Raoul Duke, an open pseudonym Thompson favored, in the movie. He met with Depp many times so Depp could get his speaking style and mannerisms down pat, gave Depp his choice of the clothes he wore at the time of the events in the book (1971), and loaned him his own red Cadillac convertible. Thompson even briefly appears in the film in a flashback to a Jefferson Airplane performance. So the movie and its star evidently had Thompson’s blessings.
Unfortunately, you learn nothing of this from the new Universal HD DVD, because all that stuff, and a commentary track by Terry Gilliam, is on the DVD from the Criterion company, released in 2004. The only extras on this disc are a handful of deleted scenes, a trailer and a short TV show about one scene in the film. No comments by Depp and none by Benicio Del Toro, who plays Thompson’s “Samoan” attorney, dubbed Dr. Gonzo.
It opens full-tilt as the two stock a rented car with every variety of drug and hallucinogen they can think of, plus cocaine and beer, and set out across the desert from Los Angeles to Las Vegas. Thompson—or rather Duke—has a contract to write about an off-road motorcycle race near Vegas; he has no clear idea about the race—or, because of the drugs, about almost anything else—but he’s jauntily determined to do the job. The trouble is those pesky bats that keep dive-bombing him as they zoom along in the convertible. (Gilliam chooses not to show the bats, but we do see others of Duke’s hallucinations in full color and ugly form.)
They pick up a soon-horrified hitchhiker (an unrecognizable Tobey Maguire), who bails out somewhere beyond Barstow. Constantly re-fortifying themselves with their salad of drugs, the two stagger into the hotel and almost immediately waste their room. There’s a vague visit to the motorcycle race, but most of the time is spent caroming off each other and the walls of their room. And later another room, when Duke is asked to cover a convention of district attorneys.
In terms of presentation of a drugged-out state, “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,” is astonishingly accurate; colors flare, colors fade; minor elements assume major importance, major elements vanish to nothingness. The whole film is laced together with somewhat more sober-sounding narration by Duke, obviously written at a later date, as he rarely gets near his typewriter. They encounter and befuddle and infuriate innocent bystanders, they quarrel, they vomit, they pass out, they come to, take more drugs and stagger off to the next barely-perceived adventure.
If you’re in the right state of mind, and I’m not suggesting drugs or booze, the movie can be a kaleidoscopic wonderland of bizarre humor, including literal lounge lizards (created by Rob Bottin). If you’re not, it may well seem aimless, repetitious, and an attempt to glorify grotesquely anti-social behavior. A scene near the end has Duke and Gonzo in a cheap Vegas coffee shop where Gonzo terrorizes the previously bored waitress (Ellen Barkin) into a state of near catatonia—and Duke does nothing about it. It seems unlikely that Gilliam would want us to identify with the two stoned wastrels, but it’s hard to interpret the scene otherwise. There’s a similar scene with a terrorized maid who just wanted to clean the room.
More successful is a scene when Duke tries to flee Vegas. He’s pulled over by a big cop (Gary Busey) who recognizes and somewhat approves of him, and asks for a kiss. (An improvisation by Busey.)
Thompson’s books are notable for their observations, even if through a druggy haze, on the world he’s currently visiting, but the movie features almost none of this, except occasionally in the slightly woozy narration. Most of the supporting characters, insofar as they have ANY character, are broadly drawn lampoons, like the clueless and car rental clerks. We barely glimpse the motorcyclist, and the only D.A. who gets a word in is Michael Jeter, an utter lampoon. Is this the way he really was, is this the way the drugged-out Thompson saw him, or is this the way Gilliam wants to present him?
A lack of focus would seem to be a natural byproduct in a movie so thick with drugs and booze, but more discipline should have been shown by someone. Still, it has to be admitted that if you don’t mind closeups of Benicio del Toro puking into a toilet, there’s a lot of entertainment to be had in “Fear and Loathing.”
At the center is another totally transformative performance by Johnny Depp (Thompson shaved the actor’s head to match his own bald pate). There’s not much solidity to the characterization; Duke is all over the place emotionally, psychologically and physically—he never walks a straight line, instead staggers his determined way through crowds and other obstacles. Like Uncle Duke in the comic strip, he clenches a cigarette holder in his teeth constantly, which makes the on-screen Duke sometimes hard to understand, but fortunately, the off-screen Duke explains it all for us, more or less.
As a display of high definition video, “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” is a puzzle. The vomit is extremely sharp and well defined, as are all the chunks of floating crud in the flooded hotel room and overflowing bathtub. The ashes of Duke’s constantly-smoked cigarettes are discernible, down to the tiniest flakes. The scales on the lizards and other occasional hallucinations are almost tangible. But is this the best use to which hi-def can be put?
If you like the movie, the answer is yes. However, if you like it, you probably already have the Criterion version, which has a flood of extras. If you do have that one, there’s no strong reason to buy this one. I could cite an obvious exception, but that would be advice I shouldn’t give.