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  Thompson's Worst Trip

By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 22, 1998

    Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas
    Johnny Depp stars in "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas."
"Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas" inspires boredom and nausea in D.C.

Based on self-styled gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson's memoir of a drug-addled trip to the gambling Gomorrah in the desert in 1971, the movie is a relentless monotone. Watching it is like being forced to listen to bad heavy metal music turned up to 11 while fat guys in Bermuda shorts compete in a puking contest in the john (extra points for an interesting spatter pattern). In other words, it's like being the designated driver at spring break.

Terry Gilliam
Johnny Depp;
Benicio Del Toro;
Ray Cooper;
Walt D. Ludwig;
Ellen Barkin;
Gary Busey;
Cameron Diaz;
Christina Ricci
Running Time:
2 hours, 8 minutes
Violence, profanity and drug use
The famous Thompson work, long said to be unfilmable, turns out to be something far worse: unendurable. It has no moment of repose or quiet, no escape from Johnny Depp's posturings as Thompson's alter ego, Raoul Duke, and Benico Del Toro's upchucking as his equally drug-crazed Samoan lawyer who accompanies him on the trip. But the book worked because of the stylized intensity of Thompson's prose, a vile screed against all that essentially was not him and at the same time a level of comic, personal honesty then unknown to journalism. The bad boy of the third-oldest profession chronicled his adventures in Vegas during a couple of pointless freelance assignments while baldly listing all the monster drugs he took and recording their precise impact on his psyche, his sexual longings, his fears, his yearnings, his nastiness.

A rancid masterpiece, the book is of a piece with other nostrums of pure vileness, survivable only because of the distancing factor of the prose. Fred Exley's "A Fan's Notes" comes to mind (also essentially un film able), or some of Henry Miller's tropical confessions.

The movie tries to replicate the pyrotechnics of Thompson's prose in a visual texture teased and polished by Monty Python alumnus Terry Gilliam, a director long beloved for his pictorial resourcefulness. (He made "Brazil" and, most recently, "12 Monkeys.")

Gilliam's stylistic genius can't be doubted – he does nightmares brilliantly, and his imagery is as vivid as any scene from Hieronymus Bosch. I particularly enjoyed a mescaline-coke-grass-beer delirium in which a roomful of gambling suburbanites in the crinkle-free polyesters of the '70s transmigrates into a roomful of carnivorous Komodo dragons feasting on the flesh of lesser beings. I love it when that happens.

But the movie never comes close to a narrative structure. It tells no story at all. Little episodes of no particular import come and go; now and then a Hollywood hipster shows up in a cameo – Gary Busey as a highway patrolman, for example – but the movie is too grotesque to be entered emotionally. No matter how high Thompson and his pal get, the audience is stuck in ZZZZZZsville.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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