"Where the Buffalo Roam" is a shambling stiff, destined to tarnish the reputations of everyone responsible for it while appealing only to the aging cadres of counterculture barbarians who persist in equating cultural superiority with stoned facetiousness and obscene ridicule of Richard Nixon, an indispensable bete noir for diehard hipsters if there ever was one.
Having bankrolled both "More American Graffiti" and "Buffalo," Universal seems to be intent on establishing a kind of cinematic Edsel division, devoted to the manufacture of nostalgic lemons commemorating the slumbering Spirit of 1968.
Now at area theaters, "Buffalo" is a cloddish, wearisome attempt to slap together a slapstick comedy out of clowishly exaggerated episodes from the authentically eccentric literary career of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson, perhaps the nuttiest advocate of hyperbolic, self-dramatizing New Journalism. pThompson himself coined the term "gonzo journalism" to describe his deliberately manic and sometimes inimitably funny, revealing reportage, which suggested Norman Mailer on speed.
Thompson's most notable literary achievement was "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas," an account of a whirlwind tour through the gambling mecca with his lawyer sidekick that was first published in two installments in Rolling Stone in November 1971.
One of Thompson's last contributions to the magazine during his later tenure as "National Affairs" editor (where he may actually have influenced the 1976 presidential election by praising Jimmy Carter as a latent radical) was a December 1977 memoir of this legal renegade, a Mexican-American named Oscar Zeta Acosta. Acosta had once tried to organize a "brown power" movement in East Los Angeles, fell into disrepute after a drug bust, became a fugitive from justice and was last seen, perhaps apocryphally, outracing the Coast Guard while smuggling smack into Florida.
Acosta had nicknamed himself The Brown Buffalo. Thompson's article, a possibly premature eulogy, was typically overtitled: "Fear and Loathing in the Graveyard of the Weird: The Banshee SCREAMS for Buffalo Meat." Although it was this remembrance that evidently prompted Universal executive Thom Mount to commission a movie, why he or anyone else envisioned it as a humorous inspiration is difficult to understand.
Thompson himself certainly wasn't looking back on his escapades with Acosta in a lighthearted frame of mind. "Acosta, despite any claims to the contrary," he wrote, "was a dangerous thug who lived every day of his life as a stalking monument to the notion that a man with a greed for the Truth should expect no mercy and give none. . ."
The reckless, uninhibited semi-sinister friendship Thompson wrote about has been reduced to a pretext for bumbling episodic farce by screen-writer John Kaye and producer-director Art Linson. Thompson, dully impersonated by Bill Murray, and the lawyer, now called "Karl Lazlo" and indifferently embodied by Peter Boyle, are transformed into feeble imitations of Hawkeye and Trapper John in "M*A*S*H" and Cheech & Chong in "Up in Smoke."
Someone loaned me a copy of Kaye's screenplay shortly before the film went into production, so I'm in the rare position of being able to report that a dodgy piece of material failed to luck out. The script seemed to allow no margin for error. Given the scarcity of characters and incidents, it required instant comic rapport and considerable improvisation on the part of the actors cast as Thompson and Lazlo to redeem a perilously marginal scenario.
Well, the actors haven't transcended their material. They're simply stuck with it. Murray and Boyle don't emerge as a swell comic team, and they aren't funny as individuals either. Affecting a drowsy squint, mumbling his lines and struggling to keep his cigarette holder balanced (a bit of business that certainly didn't daunt Rosalind Russell as Auntie Mame), Murray seems too subdued and blurry to do amusing justice to Thompson. I gather Murray and Thompson hung out systematically right through the shooting, and perhaps this was the fatal inhibiting obstacle to an effective impersonation.
At any rate, the personality one infers from Thompson's excitable prose and that Murray describes in an interview in the current issue of Rolling Stone is exactly what seems to be missing from his performance: "It was nonstop, without sleep, high energy, physicalizations, crazed raps, insanity, movement, speech, ideas -- there's no question I got the performance of a lifetime." Far from returning the favor, Murray proves a washout on screen, inviting bafflement about why he was cast in the first place.
Disquished in a bushy mustache and unruly mop that suggest an impersonation of Gene Shalit, Boyle plays a hirsute, lumbering second banana to Murray's clean-shaven, stumblebum top. The screenplay consists of lugubrious flashbacks in which Thompson recalls Lazlo while doing a Most Unforgettable Character I Ever Met piece on deadline for a raggy magazine called Blast. First seen as an unorthodox lawyer extricating a wigged-out Thompson from the hospital and defending young drug offenders, the fugitive Lazlo keeps turning up at later stages of the author's life, degenerating into more of a criminal paranoid as the social climate itself grows calmer.
Unfortunately, there's no illusion of change, for better or worse, in the way these episodes are staged for the camera. The co-stars establish feckless, incompatible stoogy identities while Linson imposes consistently clumsy, amatuerish direction. Even if there were novel possibilities in the gags dreamed up to illustrate Thompson at Work on Big Assignments like the Super Bowl or the 1972 Presidential campaign -- playing football in his suite with hotel employes or spraying the other reporters on the press plane with extingusher foam -- Linson would obviously lack the flair to capitalize on them.
In addition, the forced carefree tone of this misbegotten biographical romp seems especially oblivious at a time when the subject distress. The current issue of Rolling Stone also features a strange, vindictive interview with Thompson in which he maintains amazing control while being grilled by an editor who accuses him of being washed up. The only question that remains to be settled in the magazine's curiously snooty estimation is whether the esteemed. Doc is more whore than hack or hack than whore.
Demonstrating the original comic streak that made him perhaps the most endearing disreputable writer since Wilson Mizner, Thompson amiably mused, "No, I wouldn't agree with either one of them. But since we both sell words for a living, we know what words are really worth. . . 'Hack,' oh yeah, that's a good word, but it's sort of like a pop-top on a beer can, one of those sharp little boogers you pull off the beer cans. 'Whore' is like an empty beer can. . . But it occured to me that what you should recognize is that . . . I am a monster. A monster . Now, that's all ye know and all ye need to know."
And it's this kind of uncanny perception and wacky integrity that the duffers behind "Where the Buffalo Roam" failed to appreciate and reproduce. The result is an insult to man, medium and knowledgeable audiences.