Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998) – Movie Review

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is supposed to be a lament, but it just sucks. Visually, the film is great; there’s all sorts of neat tricks with lighting, camera movement and special effects to conjure the illusion that two drug addicts stumbling about is somehow interesting, but, unfortunately, the illusion’s effectiveness quickly fades and all that is left is the bad script. The script is so bad that they should have called it Dull and Boring in Las Vegas instead.

There isn’t really a plot. We follow two druggies, Raoul Duke (Johnny Depp) and his attorney, “Doctor” Gonzo (Benicio del Toro), as they engage in a chemically-induced assault on the Las Vegas strip. Duke is supposed to be there to write on a bike race in the desert, but is instead inspired to write about the American Dream and the failure of the 1960’s counterculture. However, the narration Duke provides only makes the film seem pretentious as if he’s trying to make the things depicted on screen seem more significant than they actually are. It’s a shame for the premise had potential; perhaps the problem lies in the source material, Hunter S. Thompson’s 1971 book of the same name, but I haven’t read it so I cannot say.

Anyway, I don’t really have much to say about this movie so I’ll let another do the talking. Here’s what one Ron Wells says of the film, when it first came out in 1998:

For all of you idiot film reviewers, do the two main characters, Raoul Duke (Johnny Depp) and Dr. Gonzo (Benicio del Toro) really look like they’re having a grand old time? I don’t think so. Like Hunter S. Thompson’s classic tome, we see the ugly downside of the drug revolution. Revolutions tend to end in anarchy and pointless bloodshed. Instead of a higher consciousness, we get Duke, and we get a ringside seat for how meaningless and cruel the real world is, and a close look at the demons within himself. “Fear and Loathing” does for psychedelics what “Boogie Nights” does for cocaine; displaying in graphical detail the ultimate failure of drugs as an escape route. You feel the psychic thud as our anti-heroes hit bottom. It ain’t pretty.

Okay, maybe I should add my two cents here. Yes, the film displays the “ugly downside of the drug revolution,” but the problem is is that it hardly does anything more. There’s the narration, as mentioned before, and some images that try to heighten things, but they mostly fail because the “insights” Duke provides aren’t exactly mind-expanding. And the images are quite blatant in their meaning as we see, during one of Duke’s more potent highs, Richard Nixon’s distorted head on a television screen along with Jimi Hedrix’s rendition of Star Spangled Banner juxtaposed in the background. During that same scene Gonzo offers Duke more cocaine that he sprinkled on his knife, then seconds later he offers more but on his gun, then Duke’s mind molds him into the Devil. A bit obvious, no? But even then, the emphasis is still on how “crazy” Duke’s and Gonzo’s shenanigans are. Wells goes on:

It’s a valid complaint since we barely see what the poor bastards are like when they aren’t binging, so no level-headed base line is ever really established. These guys didn’t end up this way overnight, though. They worked their way down. “The Truman Show”, one of the best films of the year, doesn’t make a lot of sense without knowing the conventions of television. However, we all know about sets and cues and product placements. In this case, uneducated about drugs, these bozos look like a couple of joy-riding assholes pissing on anything standing in their way. They aren’t exactly doped up on any judgement enhancers. Duke and Gonzo’s understanding of the repercussions always comes too late. They have no guide for their descent into hell, just the psychic corpses of everyone they ran down on the way to mark their way.

This is just Wells making excuses: It’s not the movie’s fault, but your own for being too square to understand the psyche of a junkie, okay? Seriously, the film really is just “a couple of joy-riding assholes” with a message merely tacked-on. That’s it. It could have worked if the film had more to rely on than just the visuals. Oh well. So, what else does Wells have to say?:

Now this is a damn funny film, but it’s not some Bill Murray flick. Vegas is surreal enough, without turning into a cross between Sid Vicious and Otis, the town drunk. You can either laugh at the buffoonery and/or cringe with recognition from your own experiences. I know I did. Duke, Thompson’s alter-ego, has moments of clarity throughout the film. He knows the 60s are over. Like a lot of habitual users, though, he’s always trying to move the bottom of the well lower to prevent hitting it on the way down. The drugs may expand your mind, but sometime you’ll look down and see only the filth you’re standing in.

Notice how he doesn’t mention any specifics concerning the humor in the film. Yes, the movie attempts to be funny, but mostly fails. For one thing, Depp’s performance is silly at first, but it’s, in the end, too cartoony. All he does is stumble about, make jerky arm movements and eye-twitches. There really isn’t much of a character to laugh at, but rather a collection of traits and eccentricities that are seemingly designed to illicit laughter. I’m not saying there should be a deep characterization, but at the same time this isn’t a 1930’s slapstick; the film is established in reality (or, rather, crashing through it) so there at least needs to be something a little bit more to the character that we can laugh with/at. There are also a number of scenes and moments that try so hard to be funny, like the scene in which Duke is pulled over by a cop (played by Gary Busey) which ends with the punchline of the cop wanting a kiss on the cheek.

Also, note how Wells defends the film for what it depicts, instead of how it depicts it. Now, what he describes can also describe almost every movie about drug usage and addiction. This reminds me of another “review” by wannabe internet celebrity Jeremy Jahns where he calls The Avengers an amazing film, but says so because it featured superheroes who didn’t get along at first. What’s silly about this is that every movie about a team assembling to save the world, or whatever, starts the same way. Just because certain tropes are present doesn’t mean the movie is “better” or “more believable,” but it’s in the way in which the tropes are used or whether if they work for the film. Wells concludes his review:

What kind of moron thinks this film glamorizes drugs? “Die Hard” can be a lot of fun to watch, but I wouldn’t want to live through it. “Fear and Loathing” is a sort of psychedelic action film. It’s a blast, but I wouldn’t want to be there, either. If you want an easy rush, get on a roller coaster. The other stuff is just pants-shitting terror. Buy a ticket, take a ride.

He’s right in that the movie doesn’t glamorize drug use, but one also can’t deny that the movie expects us to be intrigued by it; perhaps, this isn’t an unrealistic expectation for there are the sheltered who will be drawn to such “dangerous behavior and lifestyles”; however, drug usage and its predictable outcomes aren’t immanently intriguing. And this is, again, the film’s greatest flaw; it’s almost nothing, but druggie shenanigans even with the inclusion of Duke’s narration. Shenanigans can be interesting, but with Fear and Loathing we just get the same shit over and over that’s about as exciting as a ride on the Ferris wheel. However, as much as I like to rag on critics, especially “professional” ones, they, overall, seemed to had gotten this movie right when it came out, perhaps for the wrong reasons (maybe reasons Wells was originally trying to counter in his review,) but whatever. This movie is lousy and I don’t know why I wasted two hours on it. I guess maybe because it’s one of those “cult films” that are supposed to be once-neglected gems, but now have been pulled from the muck. But after watching this, I’m hoping there are more deserving films out there, ready to be truly seen.
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6 thoughts on “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998) – Movie Review

    • From Depp’s voiceovers I’m not surprised. I might still seek out his writing though just to see for myself, but I have a feeling he’s probably one of those writers praised for what he represents rather than what he achieved.

  1. Even high, I recall this movie being very dull – lots of wacky faces and situations, but pretty much nothing of substance on virtually any level.

    • Yeah, the movie’s very dull. It’s a shame when good visuals are wasted on tripe. I’m guessing it’s become such a cult film because some people think drug-shenanigans are cool and fun to experience vicariously.

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