Tuesday, 11 August 2009

Spiral568's Greatest Movie Countdown: No#99: Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas

My lack of reading is pretty much my greatest cultural faux pas. Does it means I belong to the assembly line of popcorn munching airheads who are only able to absorb fiction in bitesize two hour portions, without the patience or capacity to invest in stories of greater detail and complexity? Am I missing out on worlds that cinema cannot quite put into words? Quite possibly. All the elitists can look down upon me. But of the few books that I have read, Fear and loathing in Las Vegas is certainly one of the best, and it is hard to describe why. This does not bode well for this post, to be sure, but if I were to try it would be something to do with its magnificently raving, unchained narrative style and the sheer amount of hilarity it achieves from two people essentially destroying themselves on drugs. So when it came to the film adaptation, I was skeptical to say the least. Like they were going to take something that was exclusively mine and bastardize it into a form acceptable or the eyes of the average Joe. There was just no way this could be done. But for the most part it was. It may not quite be the masterpiece that Hunter S Thompsons original novel, but its a great movie that is in turn hilarious and terrifying, entertaining and monstrous. The film explores human excess in all its ridiculousness, and seems to enjoy every minute of it. I will get to why the film earned its place on the list - I am willing to admit its a very personal choice - in time, but first a little background on its director.

Terry Gilliam is a film-maker that I really dont know what to make of. He has made some great films, I think most people would agree with this even if they may not agree over which ones they actually are. His films are usually stylish and involving, but often overdone in a visual sense and a narrative one his roots as an animator to me has defined his film career and not always for the better. Films like Time Bandits or The Brothers Grimm, Tideland and even Brazil have some good ideas but are always too sporadic and inconsistent, and the man has only really got it right a couple of times. Ironically one of those times is this, the adaptation of a novel that pretty much turned sporadicism into an art form. I think that Gilliam benefited from dealing with more adult orientated material, as the curse of the fairy tale has hung around his entire resume, and even here to some respect. As the tale of two men who come to the city of bright lights to live their dream has a whiff of the fairy tale, but it exists as some kind of twisted shadow of what it is supposed to be and thus is infinitely more transfixing. And its to Gilliam's credit that he makes this world his own, and as a result of this adaptation he has made one of his best films.

The plot, such as it is, sees doctor of journalism Raoul Duke (Johnny Depp) and his overweight Samoan lawyer Dr Gonzo (Benicio Del Toro) drive into Las Vegas in a red sports car with every drug known to man in the boot. They proceed to use them. It fucks them up. This is pretty much the entire plot, so those who believe that every film should be LA Confidential would do well to give this a miss. What it does do though is make us laugh, which is always welcome, show us the lengths of depravity drugs can reduce a human being to, and in many ways show us the fallacy of the philosophy that drugs are the way to enlightenment and freedom as the flower power generation o the sixties believed. Set in 1971, the time when this movement for all intents and purposes came to an end, one could say that this is about the death of the ideal of the sixties, the ideal of the hippie if you will, and once their rebellion and beliefs are repelled all that's left is disillusionment and drugs. Which are taken endlessly in the hope that one day they'll transport you back to a time when your voice mattered. But it never does. All it leaves you with is outrageous behavior, bodily breakdown and mood swings that eat there way through your sense of cohesion. And yes this film mocks the regular straight-laced society, from the gamblers seeking the same excess through the casinos to its valid point about most men living afraid and jealous and being unable to seek the highs that these freaks so. But for the most part we are laughing at them, at Duke and Gonzo for what they reduce themselves to. Its the diary of a self-deprecating drug-user, Duke knows what they make him like, he knows of the downsides to his health and his state of mind, he even knows that his reasoning is weak but he doesn't care. The life led high leaves little time for self-improvement. And for me this is a particularly unique view on drugs, and an impressive thing or Gilliam to retain from the novel and express in his own way.

Another important factor to the success of the film is the strength of the two lead performances from Johnny Depp and Benicio Del Toro. Depp, whose career in 1998 was ever slightly entering a rut, as he couldn't make a good film without Tim Burton (with the exception of Jim Jarmuschs Dead Man) but this film showed he could really act, and not just be a pretty boy, which those who paid less attention could reasonably believe him to be at this point. He does the required uglying up, as is the sign of an actor at his most actorly, but gives the performance to match it. The stumbling drug-fried man barely in control of his physicality but retaining his brilliantly gifted and literate mind, just so he can so beautifully chronicle all the acts of repulsiveness he and his attorney commit - that include going through a circus whacked on ether, crashing a drug czars convention stoned of their head, the statutory rape of an under-age christian girl, the intimidation and abuse of a cafe waitress and many many more - the ongoing voice-over, mirroring Thompson and his prose is terrifically delivered by Depp, who so accurately captures the self-deprecating tone of the work, this is one of the stronger voice-overs in the cinematic archive. But Depp is just as good in his performance, purveying the intelligence and self-destructive side necessary to the character. But the film belongs to Del Toro, whose performance is much stronger then it would first seem. On first glance it seems like another Del Toro character bit, a la Usual Suspects, but as the film progresses we gradually get exposed to Gonzo and his inner viciousness and brutality, working all the more because they come in between all the zaniness and wacky activity otherwise going on. Just for a moment we see Gonzo the person rather then Gonzo the drug freak and he is almost more terrifying. To date I have only seen Del Toro turn in better performances then this one or two times, and this will go down as one of the highest peaks of his career. There are a few celebrity cameos scattered about, from Tobey Maguire to Cameron Diaz to Christina Ricci but none really get enough time to do anything and the film really belongs to the leads, and deservedly so. Gilliam, to his credit, mostly restrains his out there visual habits ( Except for the casino set Lizard orgy I guess) and the film benefits from it, Gilliam is stylish in the right places and allows the actors to act in the right places too. He finds a good balance.

To conclude, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is a very important film to all concerned. It reignited the career of Johnny Depp, increased the notoriety of Benicio Del Toro and showed the world that Gilliam is capable of making a great movie set in the real world, if you can call this world that. Its a quiet little classic that doesn't get earth shattering levels of acclaim but for me is one of the stronger films of its type. It makes a movie about drugs that has a brain, and explores more then the mere suffering and poverty that is the usual fodder of its genre. Gilliam hasn't made a better film since and in all likeliness never will.

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