Watching Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas the other night has had a lingering effect. Not because the movie is particularly affecting or, to be blunt, good. It's that it has so many elements that should make it affecting and (again, to be blunt) good that the fact that it isn't, warrants consideration.
Societies, cultures, even civilizations themselves, do not sprout up overnight. The overwhelming network of human influence upon one another, eventually leading to shared beliefs and values, enough of which to find solidarity and safety in a stranger's company, is so complex as to become a field of study on its own. Fear and Loathing, on its surface level, appears to be about a man challenging the culmination of these beliefs that have become specific to America. He is glorified in rebelling against these perceived values as he and his partner in crime (not just a figure of speech here), run amok through an assortment of Las Vegas hotels and locales. For the briefest of moments, the film seems to understand that these men are hopelessly wrong in their efforts - but because the movie's focus is kept on the eye of their hurricane of chaos, and not on the destruction it has caused, it misses its opportunity to find an empathic bond with the audience.
The two leads, played by Johnny Depp and Benecio Del Toro, as well as all of the incidental cast including Tobey Maquire, Cameron Diaz, Christina Ricci, John Hamm, Gary Busey (shout out to the GBTM fans!) and even Penn Jillete, are superbly performed here - each bringing an iconic flavor to the screen. This, along with the gloriously maddening camera work and direction of Terry Gilliam, highlight that the problem of the movie doesn't lie in its production, but in the script itself.
I don't want to get into the history of Hunter S. Thompson, his legacy, gonzo journalism, his lawyer and all the historicity around Fear and Loathing itself. You can read up on the subject by people more informed than myself. Moreover, I don't want to go into great detail about how the movie is an endless loop of Depp and Del Toro taking an inordinate amount drugs, nearly getting sober and then taking more, ad infinitum. Not only should these be common knowledge to you dear reader, but as the great Ebert once said, "A movie isn't what it's about, it's how it's about it."
What this necessitates is an examination of the script and how it approaches the drug-induced odyssey of Depp and Del Toro. It presents their drug use with not only whimsy and abandon, but as righteous. While the escapism of chronic drug use is almost uniformly tied to escaping ones own demons and traumas, the righteousness presented here is that they are escaping the demons of Americanism.
And what is Americanism? Here it is represented in the crass consumerism of Las Vegas, authority figures, moral indignation of drug use and even a blonde bombshell. Whether it's throwing change on the floor of a dwarf waiter politely requesting his tip, entering a live performance only to be so disruptive as to be thrown out moments later or otherwise terrifying those in the service industry who have the unfortunate luck to cross their paths, the script continues to focus on their narcissistic scorn for their surroundings - allegedly critiquing all things American.
However, because the script is just as narcissistic as the characters themselves, this allegory is only evident upon analysis and not in the film itself. The script never takes a step back to analyze whether or not these characters are right - it assumes it. This assumption ignores their moral fallibility, but more importantly, ignores the plight of the dwarf waiter who had his change callously thrown to the ground, the patrons who had their Debbie Reynolds show ruined and all of those who had to tolerate their rudeness and clean up after them.
There is, admittedly, one exception.
In a scene that underscores what a missed opportunity this script really is (earlier referred to as the briefest of moments), Depp and Del Toro enter a diner and are the sole customers to a washed out 30 something waitress played by Ellen Barkin. Del Toro, in a fit of controlled rage, terrifies the waitress with such mounting dread that it's on par with any scene featuring Chigurh in the Coen's film, No Country for Old Men. For the first and only time in the movie, the film seriously questions whether these men should be held in high regard. The camera turns to the destruction they have callously wrought, but doesn't stay long enough to learn its lesson.
And what lesson is that? Well, I allow me to diverge for a moment.
Jack Abbot is an author. He was recognized as such by Norman Mailer, an author as well but whose prominence made his expertise expand beyond literature, into human character itself. The story goes that after Mailer won the Pulitzer Prize for his novel, The Executioner's Song (which chronicles the murders of, and ultimate execution of, Gary Gilmore), Jack Abbot sent Mailer his chronicle of what it's like to live in prison titled, "In the Belly of the Beast." So profound was its prose that Mailer ultimately led a campaign to get Abbot released - as it was clear to him that a writer of this magnitude was too precious to be living a lifetime behind bars. Mailer was successful, and six weeks after his release, Abbot murdered a waiter in cold blood.
Mailer, reinforced by the praise directed at his works, blinded himself to the obvious dangers of releasing a man like Abbot. His self-aggrandizing belief that being a great writer made him a great person extended into his understanding of Abbot - that there was some equivalence between being a great writer and a being a great moralist. He was so disastrously wrong, that it culminated in the murder of an innocent. Did Mailer ever learn this lesson? When questioned about his role in releasing Abbot, his response was that it was just, "another episode in my life in which I can find nothing to cheer about or nothing to take pride in."
Such a response begs the interpretation that his remorse was nothing more than fleeting. Indeed, this mirrors Fear and Loathing's scene with the waitress, insofar as it was a fleeting acknowledgment that maybe something isn't right, but not an in-depth look as to what is really wrong. Like the morale clout given upon Mailer due to his writing abilities which helped release a murderer, we have granted Hunter S. Thompson (through his Depp proxy) an equal level of latitude, allowing his drug fueled rampage through Las Vegas to be interpreted as a deep and penetrating cultural allegory instead of for what it really was - a narcissistic child's tantrums.
If only the script had this much depth and understanding of itself, we might have had a movie that was full of nuance, introspection and insight. But this film doesn't have perspective. It's locked into the one dimensional eyes of its supposed protagonists taking their wisdom for granted, not with scrutiny. Indeed, the film falls victim to the same trappings that Mailer did by assuming Thompson was righteous because of his proficiency as a writer. Think of it this way - if Thompson wasn't associated with this story, would anybody care about this character? Because right now, the only person worth caring about, is the waitress.