Good, successful or merely popular novels almost never turn into good, successful or merely popular films. Same phenomenon can be applied to cult novels. They rarely get adapted into cult films. Good example for that could be found in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, 1998 drama directed by Terry Gilliam. Based on the semi-autobiographic novel by Hunter S. Thompson, one of the iconic figures of 1960s counter-culture, it was one of the most eagerly awaited films of its time. Expectations were high also due to the reputation of its director Terry Gilliam, specialised for films with twisted and memorable style.
The film begins in 1971 when journalist Raoul Duke (played by Johnny Depp) is assigned to cover the annual motor racing event in Las Vegas. Raoul, as a child of its time, spends all the expense money on every illicit drug imaginable and heads to Las Vegas, accompanied with his trusted friend Dr. Gonzo (played by Benicio del Toro), huge Samoan lawyer who shares his recreational habits. When Raoul and Dr. Gonzo finally arrive in Las Vegas, following the racing event isn't that important compared to taking drugs, drinking and trashing hotel rooms. By a chance, Raoul and Dr. Gonzo stumble into law enforcement conference dedicated to combating illicit drugs.
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas turned out to be one of the biggest box-office disappointments of 1998 and even the critics, usually very friendly towards Gilliam, turned out to be quite hostile towards it. There are many reasons for that but the most obvious could be found in film being out of its time. The original was the product of its era and it could be understood and appreciated by the contemporaries. Newer generations, those grew up in 1970s and 1980s, had little or no understanding what really happened in times of Vietnam War, psychedelic drugs and hippie movement. Furthermore, the very counter-culture symbolised by Thompson has been transformed into the new kind of establishment. Many of those rebellious youths that had been smoking marijuana and having extramarital sex as some sort of rebellion against parents, government and authority became parents themselves, and some of them, like Clinton, became the very embodiment of the establishment. Smug and self-righteous America at the end of 1990s, which tried to present itself as the final and successful realisation of 1960s ideals, didn't have the stomach or understanding for the film that tried to present 1960s revolution as failed.
The main problem of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, of course, has little do to with its timing. The film tried to show how 1960s counter-culture succumbed to 1970s hedonism and Nixon's counter-revolution. Unfortunately, and despite film's rich narration, the viewer would have serious problems in figuring out what Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is all about and what it tries to tell. Instead of giving insight into social, cultural and political climate of 1971 this film is reduced to two characters becoming pathetic wrecks of themselves over and over again. Gilliam tries to keep viewers' attention with some interesting shots of drug-induced hallucinations, but even with his best efforts those scenes become over-repetitive. It is interesting to see Johnny Depp and Benicio del Toro trying to look as ugly as possible - Depp is bald, while Del Toro gained dozens of kilograms for the role - but the novelty wears off. Their talents are as wasted and two hours of running time are going to test the patience of even the most sympathetic of viewers. There are some occasional funny or interesting moments – those featuring talents of tragically underused Christina Ricci, Gary Busey and Ellen Barkin – but Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas as a whole is a disappointment. Only the fans of original novel, those who feel nostalgia towards early 1970s or those who like to enhance their viewing experience by taking protagonists' example can truly enjoy this film.
RATING: 2/10 (-)
(Note: The text in its original form was posted in Usenet newsgroup rec.arts.films.reviews on July 17th 2004)
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