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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Excess of Excess Ruins Thompson's Tale




Some things in life are more interesting to experience than to observe.


Dreams, for example. That fascinating vision you had last night will glaze the eyes of your most ardent admirer when you begin its tedious retelling over the breakfast table. ("And then Elvis was there, but it wasn't really Elvis, but sort of Elvis and my mother together...)


But perhaps the most tedious thing of all to observe is someone staggering about in a highly altered state -- especially when you happen to be stolidly unaltered yourself. The broken jokes of the drunk, the "hey, man" muttering of the stoned, the emotional jags and inane jabber spilling scattershot from rerouted synapses -- it's not a pretty sight. And when you add to that the insularity of the temporarily transported, you have the makings of a very long evening indeed.


This is the case with "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas," the 1998 "head trip" starting Thursday at the American House of Cinema and the Dome Cinema. Based on the famous '70s work of "gonzo journalism" by Hunter S. Thompson, the film tells the story of a drug-addled rampage by Thompson's lightly fictionalized alter ego, Raoul Duke (Johnny Depp), and his ever-ingesting attorney, the burly Dr. Gonzo (Benicio Del Toro).


Gobbling acid, amphetamines, mescaline and coke, the pair bull their way through a biker rally and a prosecutors' convention that Duke is supposed to be covering for various magazines. This frame story gives our heroes a chance to out-cool various goobers and wankers -- between bouts of retching and near-comatose incoherence. The movie begins with them getting high, and they stay high throughout. If you too are high when you see it, you might feel a part of the action. But if you have decided to remain sober, you might find that the proceedings begin to pall quickly.


That said, the film certainly doesn't lack for visual energy, supplied by its ever-inventive director, Terry Gilliam. While known mostly for his years with Monty Python, Gilliam actually came into his own much later. From "Time Bandits," "The Fisher King" and his masterpiece, "Brazil," Gilliam has fashioned a body of work that very few directors of the past 20 years have surpassed.


But "Fear and Loathing" adds nothing to that impressive collection. The fact that its lead characters are hallucinating much of the time gives Gilliam great scope for his characteristic visuals: human heads morphing into reptiles, writhing wallpaper, and so on. But although Depp and Del Toro attack their parts with appropriate gusto, the characters come across as mere cartoons. In fact, Depp's performance actually calls to mind Uncle Duke, the Doonesbury character based on Thompson.


Way back in 1980, there was another movie based on Thompson's book: "Where the Buffalo Roam." It starred Bill Murray and Peter Boyle in the Depp and Del Toro roles, and although it was considered largely a failure, it captured far more of the humanity of Thompson and his attorney -- their tortured humanity, driven not just by the passion for drugs, but also by a sense of anguish at the murderous injustice and hypocrisy they encountered in Nixon's America.


We aren't interested in such things anymore, and "Fear and Loathing" jettisons this aspect completely. What we are left with is simply a pointless display of wretched excess -- which makes the film tr?s '90s, no?