The fact that this wonderfully weird adaptation of Hunter S. Thompson's book came from Universal gives me hope for Hollywood. The fact that nobody liked this movie takes it away again. Ah, well...I suspect that people who liked the original book (published in 1971) will appreciate this movie more than anyone else--it's an absolutely pitch-perfect evocation of Thompson's manic, colorfully paranoid vision. It may be that no one but Terry Gilliam could have pulled this off, that only a director who goes regularly goes over the top with ease could have captured what is essentially a two-hour drug trip.
The plot, not that it matters very much, has reporter Raoul Duke (Thompson's alter ego, played by Johnny Depp) and his sleazy attorney Dr. Gonzo (Benicio Del Toro) in Las Vegas to cover a car race. But as they've been taking serious amounts of drugs, they soon get, to understate considerably, sidetracked, to the point where they're soon carousing around Vegas in a semi-psychotic state.
Most Thompson fans are aware of Ralph Steadman's psychedelia-tinged artwork, which adorns the book, illustrating various scenes from it. Gilliam and company were clearly influenced by Steadman. When Duke and Gonzo pick up a hitchhiker (Tobey Maguire), the guy actually looks like he does in the drawing. More importantly, however, Gilliam has caught the tone of Thompson's book. It's easy to dismiss Thompson as a sensationalistic hack--though I wouldn't--but in Fear and Loathing he wasn't simply writing about dope; he was trying to capture that moment in the early 1970s when the idealism of '60s was just beginning to give way to druggy decadence. You see that wistfulness in the movie as well. It's not really about drugs; it's about paradise lost, or perhaps paradise that never was.
The actors are superb in their respective roles. Depp is Thompson, essentially; he's all spastic mannerisms and tight-jawed mumbling. Del Toro, though he fumbles a few lines, is similarly accomplished as his wild-and-crazy sidekick. Both these guys spend a good deal of the film falling on their faces, and you can see why so many found this movie unbearably monotonous. But Gilliam does vary the pace enough to keep things moving. And the funhouse visuals are a pleasure--my favorite motif is the back-and-forth rocking of the frame during some of the dialogue scenes, as if the actors were seasick.The movie manages to illustrate a certain attitude, a way of seeing society that, if we're lucky, we don't share ourselves. It's one of the standout films of the late '90s.