Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas can be and has been described in many ways, but one of the things that this movie isn’t is a Cheech and Chong road movie about a couple of whacky buddies on a drug binge in the city of sin. There’s no going to strip clubs, no hilarious misunderstandings that make one of them have to dress in drag and be involved in a stage show, in fact, there isn’t even any gambling. This movie is more accurately described as a scalding epitaph to the counterculture of the sixties, a re…ognition that the “Peace and Love” generation’s collective ideas about changing the world had largely failed. Fear and Loathing is a disdainful look in the rear view mirror at a generation’s potential unfulfilled, lying on the side of the road embarrassed and worthless, like a 52 year old groupie trying to fit in with the youngsters, doing balloon hits at a Dead concert. In a more critical sense, I can describe it in a single word: overrated.
The movie has cultivated an impressively large cult following its release in the summer of 1998, and after three viewings, I can’t really put my finger on why. By design, it doesn’t follow any real solid narrative structure. We know we’re watching a couple of totally altered guys try to stumble their way through a weekend in Vegas, but their adventures basically include getting really high on something, freaking out somewhere, then returning to their trashed room to recover. Sure, some things actually happen; Azocar meets and has sex with a minor, Duke goes to the motorcycle race, meets some strange people, quits his assignment, there’s an ironic DA convention in town. None of these events are here to prop up a story structure; they’re true events, so they just sort of happen and move on. It’s never long before he’s just getting whacked out again and the story returns to its strange “stagnant wandering” roots. Usually, I’m pretty good at connecting with the European-style, open-ended, non-traditionally structured films, but this one just left me flat.
There are two particular aspects of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, though, that definitely make it worth watching. The primary reason is the use of Thompson’s language throughout the film, the best example being what’s become known as “the wave speech,” a poignant and incisive soliloquy that is equal parts desperate, angry and resigned. The other aspect of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas I most enjoyed was the terrific performance by its first person, Johnny Depp as Thompson pseudonym Raoul Duke. He plays the notoriously quirky alter-ego with spindly, spidery legs wobbling as he walks, spot-on deadpan deliveries and a definite undercurrent of despair that the writer must have felt as the state of society dawned on him. Gilliam skillfully guides Depp along the very edge of the fine line separating this not-as-hyperbolic-as-it-might-seem characterization from a flood of schticky gimmickry, and the film is the beneficiary. He plays a decidedly homely character with absolutely no evidence of pretense, probably because of the hearty flavor of the role. Depp took the artistic high road out of 21 Jump Street, eschewing the easy path of “Heratthrob” and turning into a real Actor’s Actor.
The film’s comedy can be both satirical and physical, its commentary both pretentious and pointless, its characters both genuine and unbelievable. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas isn’t something that one would watch in search of sheer entertainment; it’s more of a reader’s film. Its rambling nature and gloomy sort of outlook help it achieve what feels like an intentionally exclusionary feel, as if the filmmakers would look down their noses at those who didn’t entirely enjoy it with a definite air of artistic superiority. Good thing I’m not very conscious of that, because I could take or leave Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. The strength of the performances by Depp and Del Toro, and the absolutely electric language pulled almost entirely from Thompson’s book, elevated this movie from a somewhat bland 3 to a 3.5, and even then more of a curiosity than a must-see. For me, it’s a cable movie (IFC’s been running it lately), not a rush-to-purchase.
Fear and Loathing is presented in its original aspect ratio of 2.35:1 (of course), anamorphically encoded for widescreen televisions. The picture itself looks spectacular. Vegas is an inherently visually rich environment, full of stark contrasts, bright neons and layers of shadow, and the disc handles these dynamic visuals extremely well. Resolution is excellent, even in the dusty motorcycle race sequence. The only problem I noticed that was worth making a deduction for was during the second half of the film, in the form of positive artifacting. It’s a minor issue, but one that crops up on more than one occasion after the 60 minute mark. Otherwise, this is a top-notch presentation. Menus animation is among the coolest I’ve seen from Criterion, which is saying a lot.
My eyebrows arched (inquisitively, not nefariously) when I saw the coveted “DTS” option on Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas‘s audio set up menu. Criterion films normally don’t lend themselves to rich sound mixes (save the The Rock), and I’d never actually heard this studio tackle a dynamic audio presentation. Their reputation has been built on restorations and bonus material, not sonic punch. If this track is any measuring stick, that’s all about to change, because Fear and Loathing is a very impressive DTS mix. As one would expect, it’s crystal clear from the word go, in all five main audio channels. Though it’s not quite as demanding as an action film chock full of explosions, this study in drug induced hallucinations and paranoia also turns in a strong performance in the audio imagery department. Off-screen murmuring and various casino sound effects ring true in any channel at any time, recreating the frenetic pace of Sin City with beautiful authenticity. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is by far the most impressive contemporary audio presentation I’ve encountered on the Criterion line of discs, and it deserves all five of those points.
Also included is a Dolby Digital 5.1 (excellent in its own right), a Dolby 2.0 mix (why bother?), and English subtitles.
Criterion’s patented hyper-comprehensive bonus material begins on disc one of the two disc set, kicking off with a quartet of deleted scenes, complete with commentary by Terry Gilliam, eliminating the need to guess as to why they were excised. I wish they’d left the scene “The DA from GA” in the film, it’s one of the funnier exchanges and highlights the twisted sense of humor the two main characters shared, and moreover the one-two punch Depp and Del Toro had that made them the only choices for the roles.
More substantially, disc one contains the three separate feature length commentary tacks, a film buff’s favorite bonus. The first is simply director Terry Gilliam, who talks a lot about the tribulations of getting the movie put together as well as the challenges of doing justice to Thompson’s work, with a minimal amount of directorial snobbery behind his comments. The second track contains stars Johnny Depp and Benicio Del Toro, as well as producer Laila Nabulsi. Depp and Del Toro still seem to share the friendship forged on set, and their stories are intriguing and easy to listen to. Nabulsi sticks mainly to the long, long process of getting this film to the screen, and Depp even discusses his relationship with the writer himself. The third track is the piece de resistance: none other than Dr. Hunter S. Thompson himself. Thompson is pretty much everything one might expect him to be: opinionated, funny, brilliant, rambling (really rambling at times), blunt and honest. This is one of the most interesting tracks I’ve come in contact with. From here, we move on to the second disc.
I started with the first of the disc’s two submenus, “The Film.” This section contains an extensive collection of storyboards, divided into seven different sections, containing more than two hundred and fifty different frames (that’s where I lost count…it’s considerably more). The stills gallery, containing more than fifty snaps from various stages and angles of production, suffers much the same tedium as the storyboards; why not make this a montage? It’s far more dynamic than simply clicking and waiting for your laser to reset. Don’t forget to check out the section of production designs by James Clyne, but again we’re looking at silent click throughs…minimal points.
“A Study in Marketing” focuses on the film’s video promotional material, and informs the viewer that Universal and Terry Gilliam could never quite come to an agreement on how to market this movie. One thing’s for sure: it stood no chance going up against the awful machine that was Godzilla in the summer of 1998. Criterion has included seven television commercials as well as the film’s two-minute theatrical trailer, both of which make the mistake of painting this as a “drug / road / buddy movie,” likely to the great disappointment of many ticket buyers who were unfamiliar with the Thompson work.
The disc’s first featurette appears here, called “Hunter Goes to Hollywood.” It’s a ten minute short documentary by Wayne Erving, following him in 1997 on his first visit to the set of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, prepping to make his cameo. Thompson is a charismatic figure, so it’s an easy ten minutes to watch, just don’t expect a whole lot of gritty, behind-the-scenes juice.
“Not the Screenplay” is a different sort of featurette: it’s audio only, set to a card of Gilliam ostensibly burning his Writer’s Guild card. Gilliam, screenwriter Tony Grisoni and producer Laila Nabulsi talk for about seventeen minutes about the contentious details swirling around who exactly got credit for the screenplay, and I’m not exactly sure why they couldn’t all get together for a mini-interview shoot. Speaking of battles with the WGA and with Universal’s marketing department, Gilliam filmed a short (just over a minute) called Dress Pattern, a rider to the film’s credits that lampoons fifties propaganda style movies and discourages any wholesome folks from watching the film. According to Gilliam’s commentary over it, this was originally designed to stick it to whoever got the credit for writing the film, but seeing as the battle came to a satisfactory resolution, it was shelved. Rounding out this heading is Jonny Depp / Hunster S. Thompson Correspondence (just over fourteen minutes), a selection of letters back and forth between the two before, during and after production, read on screen by Johnny Depp.
Back out on the main menu, we click next on “The Source,” which takes us to a second menu of selections focused more on material predating the film. It starts with “Oscar Zeta Acosta, Dr. Gonzo,” highlighting the inspiration for Dr. Gonzo, the attorney and activist named Oscar Zeta Acosta. Footage of this man is very rare, which makes the half-hour featurette of Azocar reading from his book Revolt of the Cockroach People a very impressive find. I appreciated his passion for his politics and his eloquence…not to mention the hilarious see-through shirt he had on. It’s tough to take anyone’s political prose seriously when you can see their nipples. His son, Marco, contributes a Biographical Photo Essay on his father, with some personal photographs as well as intimate insight into the real man’s real life. Dr. Thomspon chimes in with Thompson on Acosta, an eight minute read of the introduction to recent reissues of Acosta’s books.
Up next is the Ralph Steadman Art Gallery, showcasing the art that originally accompanied the story as it ran in Rolling Stone magazine (and now appears on the exemplary package of the DVD). Steadman contributes more than fifty different drawings to the bonus material, each one more twisted and surreal than the next. We go from the strictly visual right back to the strictly aural with Breakdown on Paradise Boulevard, a snip from the audio book version of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, featuring a scene not included in the movie. The readers are indie-director Jim Jarmusch as Duke, Maury Chaykin as Gonzo, Laurie Metcalf as a short order cook, and Harry Dean “Macgyver” Stanton as the narrator.
Finally, we come to what’s probably the best bonus on the entire set: Fear and Loathing on the Road to Hollywood. This is a fifty minute documentary filmed in 1978 for the BBC program “Omnibus,” and it tries to uncover the answer to the elusive question, “Who Is Hunter Thompson?” It starts by following Steadman (as in the artist, not Mr. Oprah) and Thompson from California to his paschal homestead in his native Colorado. Once they arrive, the interviewer asks many intriguing questions of Thompson, and also takes some really bizarre footage. Thompson shoots a .357 at…well, nothing, just his yard. Thomspon drinks chilled scotch or smokes pot while ruminating on why Nixon is public enemy #1. In all seriousness, this was my favorite extra on the disc: entertaining and enlightening all at once.
Once again, Criterion brings home the goods. The video transfer is the best I’ve seen in their collection, and the DTS track is absolutely superlative. The bonus material speaks for itself; once again the company gets major players from the film to participate in its celebration, and the result is one of the most comprehensive packages I’ve ever come across. Even the packaging is exquisite, a double-wide case with a plastic sleeve overlay that’s really eye-catching. I just didn’t think the film was for me, and don’t mistake that for some moral stance on drugs or drug use (I freely admit to having a past that contains them). My problems with the film stem from the lack of a narrative spine, not from being appalled by substance abuse. It would seem that I am in the minority on the film, as it has a devoted fanbase that is sure to scoop up Criterion’s brand new edition, regardless of the (as usual) high price of quality. Highly recommended for fans of the film as a purchase; others might want to try to see the film on its own first before making the investment.
Special Features List
- Three commentary tracks
- Deleted scenes
- Storyboards and production designs
- Fear and Loathing on the Road to Hollywood: A BBC feature documentary
- Hunter Goes to Hollywood, a short documentary video by Wayne Ewing
- A look at the controversy over the screenwriting credit
- A selection of Hunter S. Thompson’s correspondence read on-camera by Johnny Depp
- Rare material on Oscar Zeta Acosta
- Trailer and stills galleries