420 Midnight: Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998)

Friday, April 19 & Saturday April, 20; Midnight | Tickets

I have never been much for Hunter S. Thompson — I know that it’s sort of a faux pas not to be into the dude, what with him being cool and cranky and all, but it’s just not my scene. I like that they shot his ashes out of a cannon after he died, that’s a way to go out, but as far as sitting down and reading a book of his stuff, I’d rather just play Mortal Kombat until I can’t feel my hands anymore.

I also don’t really dig on hallucinogens either, I didn’t even like googling the word to see if I spelled it right (It came up with this picture, and I can’t get behind that). I enjoy sitting on my couch all day, and this lifestyle of loading up your head with a weird cocktail of chemicals and then rowing around the floor in an invisible boat seems to require an amount of energy that’s beyond me.

With those two factors in mind, I have never been eager to hop on the Fear and Loathing bandwagon. I like Terry Gilliam movies well enough, except Time Bandits — scary, horrifying Time Bandits — so his trippy trip down psychedelic lane always did sound like a bit of fun. I just never cared enough about the subject matter and goofball Johnny Depp to take the dive.

Yet, here we are, face to face with Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, while enjoying a significantly milder cocktail of chemicals than anything they take in this movie. I have never even heard of some of this stuff; just what the hell is adrenochrome?

Fear and Loathing picks up with Thompson surrogate Raoul Duke (Depp) hightailing it through the Nevada desert with his tubby, psychotic lawyer friend Dr. Gonzo (Benicio Del Toro), on assignment to cover a sand-swept buggy race that the two have absolutely no intention to cover. Hopped up on a briefcase full of pep pills, cocaine, ether, mescaline, weed and LSD, Duke and Gonzo trip their way through casinos, convention centers and trashed hotel rooms, causing trouble and spooking the straights until the heat gets to be too much and they hightail it back to L.A.

It goes on for a while like that, really, some of it funny, some of it scary and before you know it, it’s over. I know calling a movie dreamlike is a bit of a cop-out, but Fear and Loathing does feel like one. Gilliam conjures up some truly weird images over the course of the film, dancing from mood to mood and scene to scene like a more coherent version of one of his early Python cartoons.

Of course, Fear and Loathing is a bit more grounded than those, what with their propensity for images like a frog waltzing on top of an armless opera singer who gargles “God Save The Queen,” or whatever, but there is definitely some uniquely wild stuff thrown around during Duke’s binges. You don’t see nightclubs full of dancing, drinking and fornicating lizard-people too often.

Though I still want to keep this movie at arm’s length, I am starting to understand its appeal. While most of the movie is pretty Looney Tunes, some of the best gags come from when Gilliam switches perspective from Duke’s drug-filled brain to those of the outsiders who see him and Gonzo as twitchy, likely dangerous, tweakers. It’s from this perspective that you get to see what cartoons Depp and Del Toro make themselves through the movie, with Depp hunting for the limits of his lovable oddball routine and Del Toro mostly acting like an unhinged psychotic — kind of like that teenager I saw crawling around the middle of the road in Greenpoint once. I wanted to get him out of the road so I wouldn’t kill him with my car, but I also thought he might try to bite me if I touched him.

People like that make me uncomfortable, and this movie succeeds in recreating that effect.

All told, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is a funny and trippy, but it’s also exhausting movie — and, man, is there a lot of puking going on in this thing. It’s a nice substitute for actually popping back dubious drugs and wandering around Vegas, but then again, I wouldn’t really know. I’ve never done either of those things.