90's-vember: Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies

90’s-vember: Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998)

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"He who makes a beast of himself takes away the pain of being a man."

It's hard to think of a quote or phrase that really sums up the film any better than that opening epigraph.  Billed as a drug-fueled buddy comedy, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is actually a cynical denouncement of America. It's an ugly film with ugly characters. Raoul Duke and (especially) Dr. Gonzo are unquestionably reprehensible characters. In addition to drug addicts, they're crooks, con-men, kidnappers and (possibly) rapists.

And yet in Vegas, surrounded by crooked cops, desperate tourists, bogus drug "experts," celebrity sycophants and dozens of equally broken and morally bankrupt characters, they are just two more faces in the crowd; perverse reflections of the American Dream.

While it's hard to relate to Dr. Gonzo, Duke is at least somewhat sympathetic, and there is a depth to his character and to the film in general; a fatalistic reason for why he drowns himself is drugs and alcohol.

...take the ride.

How does this film exemplify the 90’s?

Despite being set in the 70s, the film reflects a lot of the same social issues that were present in the late 90s. The themes of greed and corruption, the feelings of helplessness and desperation, of being the "last sane man" in world gone crazy. Even the political scandals had a ring of familiarity to them. These themes were prevalent in many of the major films that closed out the 90s, like American Psycho, Fight Club and even The Matrix to an extent.

I suppose if you want to look at it from more of a purely cinematic perspective, Fear and Loathing featured a lot of cameos from Hollywood's rising (and fading) stars. Toby Maguire, Cameron Diaz, and Benicio Del Toro would go on to do their more memorable roles after Fear and Loathing, while Chistina Ricci would go on to a few hits and misses and Gary Busey...well, Busey is, and ever shall be, Busey.

Which one's Hope and which one's Crosby, again?

What makes this my pick?

Fear and Loathing is a film I keep coming back to and getting something new from. When I first saw it, I loved it for it's humor, but with each successive viewing, I saw more of the bitterness the lay barely concealed below the surface. As I've gotten older, I see more and more how it reflects my own feelings about life in America and the Western world as a whole.

I've always been a little sad that Fear and Loathing always seems remembered exclusively for the "bat country" line, or the massive drug use, or the general quirkiness of it all, when there is so much more to the film than that. The titular fear and loathing isn't necessarily referring to a some narcotics-based paranoia, but rather the disgust felt towards contemporary America and the dread and wondering what terrible future lies in wait.

While  I still think the film's ending is weaker than the novel's,Terry Gilliam did a terrific job adapting it for the screen. The film hardly ever slows down, dragging the viewer from montage to psychedelic montage while the camera bends and twists and Duke mutters out line after line of gibberish from behind the cigarette holder permanently fixed in his mouth. The overall effect isn't just "trippy," it also captures the feeling of being powerless; of being unable to do anything but surrender to the madness and try to follow it as best as possible, much like the character of Duke.

This is another fine mess you've gotten us into, Clyde...

Moreover, he clearly understood and loved the source material, and not just the wacky, drugged-out parts of it. Some of the best sequence in the film are Duke's somber, introspective monologues; his yearning for the life, optimism of the 60s mixed with his bitterness and loathing of the 70s and what the future will bring.

The same can be said of Johnny Depp's performance in the film. Despite the character's general goofiness for the majority of the film (which he's till great at), it's these aforementioned quiet moments where he really shines. Like I discussed in my review for The Rum Diary, you can really feel the love and respect that Depp has for Thompson and his work.

Johnny Depp is always getting showered with praise for his acting, and rightly so, but I feel like Benicio Del Toro's portrayal of Dr. Gonzo is often overlooked. Sure, he's mostly seen as a walking joke, but his violent flashes, the underlying savagery brings a certain depth to the character. In a way, he's the perfect characterization of Thompson's view of America: It seems like a harmless, dumb beast, but at any point it could turn ugly and violent for no reason at all.

I love Fear and Loathing because it's a hilarious film, but also because it's a very bitter, somber look at social issues that are (unfortunately) still very relevant today. If you passed on this film because you thought it was too goofy, or too pro-drug, I urge you to give it a second look and see it for what it really is.

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Posted by Jacob

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  1. Yeah, I watched this with you and it was the first time I’d seen it, and it was pretty amazing. Gonzo’s savagery and madness really contrasts Duke’s, for lack of a better word, introspection. It’s such a dizzying and amazing ride, it really makes me wish that Gilliam had gotten to do Rum Diary too just to give some hints to the insanity that this film has in full force.

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