"Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas" is a twisted, outlandish venture into the mind of a warped junkie, a reporter who is traveling to Nevada in order to cover a Hells Angels motorcycle race, along with his Samoan attorney Dr. Gonzo (Benicio Del Toro, who gained forty pounds for his role). "We were somewhere around Barstow when the drugs began to take hold," is the line that opens the movie in an expeditious manner, as a red convertible roars from right to left, in the direction of Las Vegas. The vehicle's trunk is packed with an abundance of deadly drugs. "We had two bags of grass, seventy-five pellets of mescaline, five sheets of high-powered blotter acid, a salt shaker half full of cocaine, a whole galaxy of multicolored uppers, downers, screamers, laughers. Also a quart of tequila, a quart of rum, a case of beer, a pint of raw ether, two dozen amyls."
The narrator of the story is Raoul Duke (played by Johnny Depp), a balding, stumbling shell of a man, constantly smoking or inhaling drugs, his body overloaded with deadly substances. He is in a permanent daze throughout the entire film, constantly consuming drugs every time the camera pans onto him. He is also the reporter, the main character of the film, and he is in such a daze that after the motorcycle race is over, he's not even sure who has won. So sitting cramped in his increasingly trashed hotel apartment, he begins clacking away mumbo-jumbo on his typewriter, desperately trying to make sense of the seemingly frenzied world surrounding him.
The year is 1971, the beginning of the after-effects of the frivolous sixties. Raoul still seems to think that he is living in the past decade. He explains that his carefree ways were out of place for such an area as Las Vegas, and in one of the funniest scenes in the entire movie, he visits a conference detailing the dangers of substance abuse, and inhales cocaine throughout the seminar (led by the late Michael Jeter).
The movie is based on the semi-autobiographical memoirs of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson, who traveled to Las Vegas in 1971 with an overweight "Samoan lawyer" named Oscar Zeta Acosta. According to Thompson's novel, "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas," originally published at the end of the decade, they broke many laws and were essentially high on various dangerous substances the entire time. In his novel, Thompson used the character Raoul Duke as a relation to his own past, and the pair's psychedelic weekend as a metaphor for the Lost America. After the sixties, during the Vietnam War, Americans were deeply confused, and turned to many dangerous substances for answers. Some critics claim that "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas" glamorizes drugs. If anything, it demonizes them (sometimes quite literally), and the constant drug use is merely present to account for the duo's wacky behavior.
That's not to say that "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas" is a harmless film. Under the wrong circumstances, it could be misunderstood, which is why it was nearly slapped with an X-rating by the MPAA, and -- along with the book -- caused outrage when it was released in 1998, alongside the utter disaster "Godzilla."
Depp is the reason the film's narration succeeds as well as it does -- a lesser actor might come across as annoying. Depp seems to be channeling the physical freedom of Steve Martin and the slurred speech patterns of Thompson himself -- although he was given ample time to pick up on Thompson's mannerisms, since they spent much time together prior to shooting and throughout the filming process.
But what is essentially so fascinating about "Fear and Loathing" is its blazing style and blatant uniqueness. Brought to the screen by Terry Gilliam ("Monty Python and the Holy Grail," "Brazil"), one can only expect the movie to be strange, but it is severely distorted to the point of insanity. What is even more intriguing is Gilliam's use of his camera, cinematography and backgrounds -- the camera essentially takes on the role of a third person, as it is constantly moving, positioned at awkward angles against harsh, dizzying backdrops, wallpapers and carpets. The overall effect of the movie is the equivalent of getting high -- only this probably isn't as dangerous. Probably.
In some ways, "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas" is an utter mess of a movie -- pointless, sick, but yet it is also occasionally hilarious, and I found myself very entertained. I am not usually a fan of these sorts of movies, which only helps account for my extreme surprise in finding that I not only enjoyed "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas," but found it to be an important art house movie -- bizarre, mystifying, strange, bewildering. It is as if Fellini directed a Cheech and Chong movie. It is an experience unlike any other, and although I can completely understand the negative reviews it received upon its release years ago, I find myself somewhere in between the haters and the die-hard cult fans. The film was released on a Criterion DVD last year; a sign that despite its infamous background it actually has a fairly strong legion of fans. In some ways the movie is as confused and wandering as its narrator. It's somewhat pointless, but incidentally, I think that is the point.