Today! Because we were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert, when the drugs began to take hold –
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998)
Directed by Terry Gilliam
Starring Johnny Depp, Benicio Del Toro (x2), Christina Ricci, Tobey Maguire (x4), Ellen Barkin (x3), Christopher Meloni, Michael Jeter, Gary Busey (x3), Gregory Itzin, Flea (x2), Lyle Lovett (x3), Cameron Diaz (x4), Craig Bierko, Mark Harmon, Katherine Helmond (x2), Laraine Newman (x2), Verne Troyer, Debbie Reynolds (x2), Penn Jillette, Harry Dean Stanton (x3), Jenette Goldstein (x2)
A prime example of a film that came along at just the right moment in my life to have a lasting impact, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is a psychedelic nightmare road trip travelogue comedy, long thought unfilmmable. Hunter Thompson’s true-ish story of heading to Nevada to cover The Mint 400 motorcycle race spirals quickly and wildly out of control, featuring massive hallucinations, property damage, excessive drug use, and Debbie Reynolds. It’s funny, in that quirky Terry Gilliam kind of way, and it’s visually stunning, in a head-trip kaleidoscope pretty much unparalleled in mainstream cinema.
However, this movie, lacking any real narrative drive or logical reason for existing, certainly wouldn’t work for everyone. It’s a large budget art film produced mainly because of Gilliam’s name (pre-Don Quixote mess) and Johnny Depp’s enduring love for Thompson. This was released during my early college years, and I loved this goddamn movie. Hell, I loved the book – did everyone have a Hunter Thompson phase in college? His sentences, man! Even when they didn’t coalesce into a plottable tale (and they rarely did), they were still cutting and incisive and impactful, more philosophy than prose – and this is what made ever translating this to the screen so unlikely. And yet, it sorta works, in a conventional way, here and there. Sorta.
Watching it now, it’s not quite holding together like I’d hope. Maybe it’s a relic of my college years/the early ’70s drug culture, and is becoming more and more unrelatable the older I get. Del Toro is incredible as Dr. Gonzo and Depp’s performance is still terrific fun, but his idiosyncratic, mannered characters flooded screens in the last two decades, making it hard for this movie to stand out among them. They made a pseudo-prequel to Fear and Loathing, based on the earlier Thompson book The Rum Diary, and while Depp isn’t quite as loopy as the Hunter-esque character, the movie is hella dull by comparison. Really, even calling it a prequel is unfair – it bears virtually no resemblance or connection to this movie, but it is the same author, it’s again based on true(-ish) experiences, and Depp plays the part. You could skip that movie and miss nothing, really.
I still think Fear and Loathing is entertaining, if a bit overlong and maybe a touch repetitive. They encounter a bunch of loopy side characters – Tobey Maguire’s hitchhiker, Christina Ricci’s Streisand obsessed innocent, Gary Busey’s off-kilter highway cop – but it rarely comes together to form anything more than a picaresque mescaline storybook of nutty behavior and bizarro Vegas images, both real and computer generated. Flashbacks, flash forwards, dream sequences, and vibrant imaginings fill nearly the entire film, and it can feel a bit exhausting now, which is a bit of a shame, as again, this was probably a top 50 movie for me, had I made this list during my run at Keystone College.
There are loads of MVP level performances – Christopher Meloni’s vengeful gay concierge, Aliens’ Jenette Goldstein’s harried maid, Craig Bierko’s intensely gleeful photographer Lacerda – but if you’ve paid any attention to this list, my choice shouldn’t be a huge surprise. If there’s an Ellen Barkin option, Barkin’s likely going to win out, and so she nabs the award today, for her tough, weathered diner waitress, nervously countering Dr. Gonzo’s aggressive pie demands.
It’s a huge cast mostly popping up in single scenes and cameos, so we’ve got a bunch of new Two- and Three-Timers today, but making the greatest strides are Maguire (#381 Spider-man, #397 Wonder Boys, #235 Spider-man 2) and Cameron Diaz (#177 Shrek, #248 Being John Malkovich, #167 Gangs of New York) heading to the Fours! Spotlight!