It’s a trip, alright, but not one that has much to do with Hunter S. Thompson.
Adapting Thompson’s druggy fictionalization of his reporting adventures in Las Vegas, director Terry Gilliam and star Johnny Depp indulge in the surrealism and mania that lies at the surface of that landmark piece of gonzo writing. The emphasis here is on grotesque hallucinations (some cleverly inspired by the novel’s original Ralph Steadman illustrations) and clowning on the part of Depp (as the Thompson stand-in) and Benicio del Toro (as his suspect attorney).
In Depp’s hands, mugging can be an art form, but it’s aggressively distancing here, as if you’re watching a party you haven’t been invited to. And Gilliam, whose movies all resemble acid trips, offers little guidance. Watching Depp peck at a typewriter as if he’s a bird plucking worms from the dirt is briefly entertaining, but Gilliam lets this and similarly ostentatious moments drag on forever.
The attention should be elsewhere, beyond Thompson’s histrionics and onto the external events and internal anguish that fueled his outlandish behavior. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas does, very briefly, glance toward Vietnam, the Civil Rights battle and other instances of the era which exposed the American Dream, but these moments feel reluctantly crammed into the film, as if Gilliam didn’t want to harsh the overall mellow. And nowhere do we get a sense, as we do from Thompson’s writing, of his disgust at his own participation in the hypocrisy that bedevils America.
Instead, Depp gives us Thompson as court jester, someone to distract us from the duplicity of the world rather than expose it. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is as genial and cuddly as a Thompson adaptation possibly could be. The fear is comical; the loathing almost nonexistent.