Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998)
Directed by Terry Gilliam

Artistic & Entertainment Value
* * * * ½

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Synopsis & Analysis
Terry Gilliam's Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, which is based on Hunter S. Thompson's book of the same title, is such a visually striking and well crafted film that it quickly draws the viewer into its fictional world, enabling him to participate in the protagonists' drunken reveries and to immerse himself in their resulting anxiety, excitement, and disorientation.

The director's depiction of the journey undertaken by a journalist named Raoul Duke (Johnny Depp), Thompson's fictional version of himself, and his lawyer, Dr. Gonzo (Benicio Del Toro), to Las Vegas to cover a motorcycle race being held in the desert outside of that city is filled with a seemingly endless series of strange incidents, which, together, add up to a whirling, overwhelming maelstrom of oddities that is sure to enthrall the viewer. Consequently, rather than merely intently witnessing how the two protagonists destroy hotel rooms, visit casinos while intoxicated with hallucinogens, pick up an underaged ingénue (Christina Ricci) obsessed with painting portraits of Barbara Streisand, avoid paying their bills, find themselves in the midst of a police convention, and have various other drug induced misadventures, the moviegoer instead completely drowns himself in Gilliam's evocations of these events.

The director's success at involving the viewer in his fictional universe is, to no small degree, a result of the skill with which he makes visually manifest the distortions of Raoul's perceptions which occur while that character is under the influence of one or another intoxicating substance. At different points, Gilliam thus presents the moviegoer with visions of lounges teeming with scaly dinosaurs dressed in Hawaiian shirts, of wobbling, gelatinous pavements, of Dr. Gonzo's transformation into a ferocious, hairy, polymastic demon, and much more. All of these bizarre, inebriated fantasies are simultaneously nauseating and captivating, and all greatly contribute the movie's emotive effect.

Despite the importance of such psychedelic adventures, they do not, by any means, constitute the whole of the film. There is also, for instance, running throughout the movie's duration, a sense that the events being depicted belong to a passing era. Over and over again, the viewer is made aware that he is watching the death of a counter-culture, the collapse of a movement, of a particular intellectual uprising. Even though he is not prompted to idealize this vanishing strand of American life, he is made to sorrow for its disappearance, and this sense of loss informs much of the movie and suffuses it with a touching pensiveness.

Gilliam demonstrates considerable skill in bringing out these different themes, but they are not successfully developed by his efforts alone. The two leads also deserve considerable credit for their work. Depp is a delight as the anxious, nearly paranoid, and almost always baffled Raoul Duke, and Del Toro lends to his portrayal of Dr. Gonzo a sense that, despite the character's intelligence, he is not simply self-destructive and hurtful to others, but is potentially violently dangerous. Moreover, both of the actors, by simultaneously exposing such traits and making Raoul and Dr. Gonzo likeable, elicit a real sorrow from the moviegoer.

Such feelings of sadness do not, however, so overwhelm the viewer that he is prevented from rejoicing in the protagonists' shameless selfishness, their exuberant love of existence, and their exciting recklessness. The director, having thus conjured up a variety of complex and ambivalent feelings, each of which, by contrasting with the others, enhances the intensity of those others, gives Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas a poignant and memorable emotivity.

While the movie falls short of greatness, it is such a strange, inebriating spectacle that is likely to affect the viewer deeply and leave him with feelings of both elation and melancholy.

Review by Keith Allen

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