I have tried on many occassions to get through a complete screening of this minor work from the superlative imagination of Terry Gilliam who truly is one of the few mavericks working within the constraints of mainstream American cinema, but I finally managed to finish the film, and I am sad to report that Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is one real mess of a movie; it is a deeply flawed film that was troubled from the outset, especially once the original director, the under rated independent film maker, Alex Cox, attached to the project for a considerably long time was fired over creative differences.
Ever since Terry Gilliam’s well documented run in with the Hollywood studios over his 80’s science fiction dystopian masterpiece, Brazil, his flamboyant and deeply surreal film making style has been treated with a large degree of apprehension and like many film makers who refuse to compromise their creative vision, he has had to exist on the margins of the mainstream. Gilliam rarely ever works as a director for hire, overseeing commercial projects, unless approached by somebody of some notable Hollywood prominence who is respected for their independence like Johnny Depp. Hunter S. Thompson’s 1971 novel was labelled as virtually impossible to translate into cinematic terms without having to make some degree of dramatic compromise.
The film was somewhat of a pet project for Depp and his star power enabled him to replace Alex Cox with Terry Gilliam with relative ease, ensuring the production to keep on track. Reportedly, Rhino were involved with bringing an adaptation of the novel to the screen since 1992 and originally wanted the New Zealand director, Lee Tamohri to direct but was tied to another film project. The film was eventually distributed by Universal and was dumped because the marketing department were clueless about how they were going to sell a drug movie to a mainstream audience.
The film itself is a mess, with a meandering narrative that begins promisingly with Duke and Gonzo on the road to Vegas as they experience a colourful assortment of drugs. The problem with the film is that it is relatively unsuccessful in being able to capture or convey the hedonistic and liberated lifestyle of the drug induced era of the late 60s and early 70s. I felt that Johnny Depp was way out of his depth, thinking he could take on the insane and paranoid character of Duke was a mistake, and his performance seems improvised to such an extent that it becomes a self parody. On the other hand, Benicio Del Toro, one of the best actors working today, is superb as the hysterical and unhinged Dr Gonzo, who captures the contradictory lifestyle of the middle class American professional with incredible zeal.
If we discount Fear and Loathing then Gilliam took a hiatus of 10 years without making a film before he was allowed to direct again in 2005 with The Brothers Grimm. Lost in La Mancha documented Gilliam’s ill fated attempts to direct a big screen version of Don Quixote, and he is a film maker who has been plagued by a disproportionate set of ill fated problems with every film he makes. It seems as though fate is always working against poor Terry Gilliam, and it is disappointing that Hollywood has never really embraced him as a filmmaker as he has much to offer in terms of creativity and originality that is sorely lacking in an industry driven by banal, superficial concepts.
Fear and Loathing remains a Gilliam film, and this perhaps is the only reason that I can identify as being a cause for celebration of this disappointing excursion.