On May 22, 1988, Universal released Terry Gilliam’s big-screen adaptation of Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. The Hollywood Reporter’s original review is below:
Gonzo journalism has deteriorated into bozo cinema in Universal’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. A dunderheadedly inane adaptation of Hunter S. Thompson’s searing Rolling Stone article published 27 years ago and expanded into a book, the flaccid film is a goon-show version of Thompson’s commentary on the craziness of the American Dream.
Nostalgia-crazed baby boomers who remember being glazed and grazed by Thompson’s writings way back when will be sorely jilted by this simplistic reduction of the writer’s work and experiences to bald-faced buffoonery.
In the slapstick cinematic, Johnny Depp stars as Dr. Thompson, the era’s most flamboyant, outrageous journalist whose combative political pronouncements and incendiary volleys against the reigning establishment stoked countercultural fires then burning in college youth. As celebrated and wasted as a lead guitarist, Thompson was known as much for his drug-gorging persona as his colorful, inflammatory writings.
For studio execs too wet-behind-the-ears to remember Thompson’s heyday, Fear and Loathing was based on Thompson’s excursion to Las Vegas, ostensibly to cover an off-road race for Sports Illustrated. As per his custom, he was accompanied by his lawyer, Oscar Zeta Acosta, an activist and fellow substance abuser along for moral and legal support.
For Thompson, Las Vegas was a vast moral, ethical pit — a microcosm of the warping of America — and his writings were less about the road race and more blunt broadsides against establishment culture. That his comments and insights were fired and fueled by every known form of illegal substance was part of his legend. Unfortunately, in this lazy distillation, drunkenness and dislocation are the main focus and — even dopier — it’s played out as variety-show slapstick.
Depp’s reeling performance as the addled, brilliant journalist recalls Red Skelton’s Clem Kadiddlehopper, when the popular comedian used to rubber-knee his way around stage with silly grins, flailing his arms to latch onto something. In short, Fear and Loathing has been dummied down to a “Beer and Foaming” level — it’s merely a one-joke show as Depp and Benicio Del Toro, as the lawyer sidekick, careen from casino to casino.
On a purely comic level, the film doesn’t even achieve the loopy hilarity of Where the Buffalo Roam, in which Bill Murray essayed the antic, gonzo journalist and every now and then captured his peculiar genius. (Remember that great scene where he had the Hispanic maids running around with the couch cushions simulating the Dallas Cowboys’ flex defense?)
Unfortunately, Terry Gilliam’s encapsulation is merely an uninspired series of stumblebum scenes as Depp and Del Toro crash and slide through the neon nether world of Las Vegas. As befits a project with four credited screenwriters, the story shows its seams. We note some Alex Cox influences, mainly in scenes of vomit and physical breakdown a la Sid & Nancy, which ring true but are entirely counter to the slap-happy rest of the film.
Visually, Fear and Loathing is a disaster. Thompson’s delirium and genius, including fits of drug-induced dementia and hallucinations, is visualized in the most banal terms. Lounge lizards and all sorts of reptilian imagery appear, but they seem to have landed straight from a cereal box or theme park, so humdrum and pedestrian are the designs. If Thompson sees this movie, we hope he’ll have a couple bottles of Wild Turkey on hand to wash it down. — Duane Byrge, originally published May 18, 1998.