Published June 1, 1998
Well, they got the loathing part right anyway. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, directed by Terry Gilliam, is very nearly as unwatchable as the book by Hunter S. Thompson on which it is based is unreadable. In spite of the presence of Johnny Depp, for whose talent I have considerable respect, in the Raul Duke/Hunter Thompson role, the film is as much of a mess as the hotel rooms he and Dr. Gonzo (Benicio Del Toro) leave in their wake. I suppose that Depp’s own history of trashing hotel rooms may be ironically present here—another in-joke like having the convicted drug-user Gary Busey appear as a highway patrolman. But the presence of in-jokes is itself just another sign of the druggie’s self-indulgence.
For this is a film to make one believe that the chief argument against recreational drugs is not that they damage the health of the user, nor even that they are somehow contaminants of the general social hygiene but that they encourage people with too much money and not enough brains to think themselves funny and profound (or, as the case may be, profound and funny) when in fact they are nothing of the kind—except to other druggies like themselves. My natural libertarian impulses are overcome by the need to put some sort of rein on such an obvious public nuisance as Hunter-Thompsonesque profundities. A film like this, or like Richard Linklater’s Dazed and Confused, is the cinematic equivalent of a boom-box carried through the street at full volume.
We need to retain the legal authority to pull the plug on such people, if not by denying them drugs, then by throwing them in jail if they insist on telling us what wonderful or terrible—it comes to the same thing with druggies—things the drugs have done for them. Or if they represent for us a supposed political sagacity by intercutting scenes of their own intoxication with TV clips of soldiers in Vietnam fighting or anti-war demonstrations. Or if they are generational chauvinists talking in voiceover narration of the “energy” of the young overpowering all that is “old and evil.” Unlike Timothy Leary, whom they dismiss as the apostle of “peace and love for $3 a tab,” Thompson-Gilliam are not pharmacological utopians. They understand the sinister and frightening aspects of drugs and with anarchic spirit celebrate precisely that. But for those not already as brain-burnt as themselves, there seems no point to it but self-pity, which is yet another form of narcissism.