High Times

Don't look back: Johnny Depp (left) and Benicio Del Toro bring a '90s work ethic to the business of debauchery.

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas
area theaters

There comes the time in any actor's career when the high calling of the craft demands he get really fat. Ever since Robert De Niro gained 40-odd pounds in order to portray the late-vintage Jake La Motta in Raging Bull, the buffet table has become the proving ground for actors--male actors, that is--to show their dramatic, what shall we call it, heft. Vincent D'Onofrio did it to memorable effect portraying a simpleton enlistee in Full Metal Jacket. Even the man-sized Sylvester Stallone allowed the weight of ambition to fill out his sculpted figure (and slim his salary) for the role of a suburban pig in Cop Land. In the muscular world of Hollywood vanity, an actor can make no greater sacrifice than tucking into some Hostess products and daring to look like the rest of us.

The latest entrant in the Jenny Craig Method-acting sweepstakes is Benicio Del Toro, who gained some 35 pounds for the role of Dr. Gonzo in the film version of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Dr. Gonzo acts as sidekick to journalist Raoul Duke, the alter ego of Fear and Loathing author Hunter S. Thompson, and over the course of a week in Las Vegas, the two address themselves to the chore of consuming "two bags of grass, seventy-five pellets of mescaline, five sheets of high-powered blotter acid, a saltshaker half full of cocaine, and a whole galaxy of multicolored uppers, downers, screamers, laughers..." That's not to mention the booze, amyls, and ether. On one hand, then, Del Toro has achieved an impressive adiposity, yet his high-carbohydrate diet is a thin imitation of Dr. Gonzo's pharmaceutical excess.

This irony is but one way to state the obvious: 1998 is not 1971, the year Fear and Loathing appeared in serial form in Rolling Stone. Thompson's story chronicled a disastrous week spent in Las Vegas, where the writer had accepted an assignment from Sports Illustrated to follow the Mint 400 motorcycle rally. Once there...well, to paraphrase Nixon, he made his mistakes. Yet Thompson's unique literary alchemy would enable him to turn sand into shit, the scribbling of a mescaline binge into an American Book of Revelation.

In hindsight, we can debate whether the world ended in 1971. At least one period reader, a Mr. Ralph Honig from San Diego, California, dismissed such nihilism as the indulgence of "'youth culture' refugees." "You ought to publish 'Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas' as a book," Mr. Honig wrote in a letter to the December correspondence page of Rolling Stone. "Claim it's an artifact of certain times and places for 'jaded over-30 drug dilettantes.'"

In its day, Thompson's book no doubt raised the spirits of a few hard-core drug hobbyists, but Del Toro and Johnny Depp, who plays Raoul Duke, treat the business of debauchery with discipline. Going on a bender these days is one percent hallucination and 99 percent perspiration. To wit, Depp and Del Toro swat at imaginary bats on the highway like Agassi down a break in the fifth set, and they mumble, babble, retch, and sweat like they just got religion (or lost it) in one wrenching spasm--that is, when they're not stumbling and staggering and crawling on all fours--and, in general, they consistently give the impression that walking upright into a room without freaking out is a strenuous challenge. One presumes that lesser actors might have felt silly attempting all this on a quiet set, in a state of sobriety. Del Toro, bleeding at the neck and wrist from the very first scene, swaggers through his performance with a bestial panache.

Director Terry Gilliam goes about the task of total insanity with no less rigor. There is no comparison here to the quaint lysergic vision of Easy Rider, which might have set the industry standard for the depiction of drug-induced psychosis. Back then, a few dozen jump cuts, one naked lady, and a graveyard could intoxicate the temperate public. Now that television--with its constant and persuasive psychic delusions--is the drug of the nation, tens of millions of dollars and hundreds of crew must tackle the same job.

So where to start in describing Gilliam's brilliant, deranged creation? How about with something ordinary, mundane even, like the geometric pattern on the floor of the Mint Hotel that decides to take a stroll across the lobby? Or perhaps the lizard-men perambulating through pools of blood around the tiki bar? Which is to say nothing of the wolverine trapeze artist snarling above the roulette table in the Bazooko Circus casino. Even the film's few staid moments exhibit a scenic grotesquerie, a distortion of light, color, and sound that might be called Vegas Gothic. Among Gilliam's most improbable cinematic achievements is to make Cameron Diaz look homely during a fleeting cameo.

Over the course of 125 minutes, the camera careens indefatigably from tangerine trees to marmalade skies. And the effect is often so lurid, so comic as to obscure the fact that the reaction shots of the hotel patrons who surround Gonzo and Duke are inferior to those the book has left to the imagination. Occasionally, Gilliam's brisk freak show--not the apocalypse it represents--can seem an end unto itself: Who has time to worry about eschatology when there's a dwarf bellhop to costume?

Ultimately, while Hunter S. Thompson feels a good deal of anxiety and distaste for the sin city in the desert, he saves most of the fear and loathing for the jungle in Southeast Asia. That is to say Fear and Loathing is a war novel set on the home front.

Gilliam shows himself to be keenly aware of this fact, and he demonstrates it to memorable effect during the race sequence of the Mint 400. Amid a howling sandstorm, Duke speeds through the desert in the back of a jeep, covering his beer with one hand and smoking a cigarette through a hole in the bandana he wears Zapatista-style. As "Flight of the Valkyries" trumpets in the background, Duke's jeep meets another--this one carrying artillery and a squad of men in camouflage--and the vehicles come to a halt in a clearing. "Which way is the race?" one man asks, the blare of engines enveloping him from all sides. A pause. The enemy is all around; the enemy is nowhere.

The scene (and score) recalls Apocalypse Now, when Martin Sheen lands at the last American river station close to the heart of darkness. Martial order has disintegrated, and the troops alternately squat in hiding and shoot rounds at unseen targets. Where's your commanding officer? Sheen asks one soldier as tracer fire and mortar rounds scream overhead in the night sky. The soldier answers, I thought you were the commanding officer.

Hard as it may be to believe, both Thompson and Gilliam are closet moralists; and Fear and Loathing mourns not the loss of the commanding officer, but the cheery anarchy that was permanently to replace him. Gilliam, with his camera's power to depict the aggrieved citizens of the sensate world, suggests that Duke and Gonzo have gone too far, violated a sacred tenet: Don't burn the locals. Thompson, surprisingly, is more sentimental. In a reflective moment--before the trip goes from bad to worse--Duke reminisces ruefully on the "energy of a whole generation." Yes, we're talking about the spirit of the '60s, which he calls, without apparent irony, "a very special time and place to be a part of." Gilliam sets the scene to the strains of the Youngbloods' "Let's Get Together."

A generation later, nothing remains to be learned from the recreational application of psychopharmacology. If the bong has wisdom to impart, it's not talking. As such, the latest incarnation of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas--while unapologetic in its re-creation of the high life--is only articulate about what it stands against. Authority. Nixon. The bombing of Laos. Who would have thought that Hunter S. Thompson could be invoked to advance the maxim Just say no?

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