I doubt that even Jesus Christ himself knows how many film treatments there have been of Lewis Carroll’s Alice sagas. Among the damned few that have been predominantly successful is the 1951 animated feature produced under the auspices of old man Walt himself. One would think the Disney folk would be happy with that, and leave well enough alone. Instead, they foisted Tim Burton‘s 2010 version on us, which took a toilet plunger and sucked out virtually all of the novel’s inherent surrealism. It was a new nadir for both Burton and Disney. The Burton of Pee Wee’s Big Adventure (1985),Batman Returns(1992), and Ed Wood(1994) might have been an ideal match for the material. But, as a wise old owl once said, “the world may never know.” The Burton of 2010 was well past his tether and far from being the dark visionary of his past. Indeed, his Alice was a painfully sanitized caricature, and it seemed Burton could sink no lower (until Dark Shadows, that is).
The Tim Burton version of Alice in Wonderland was scripted by Disney writer Linda Woolverton, who is and always has been a hack. Her Beauty and the Beast (1991) was a saccharine parody of Jean Cocteau‘s staggeringly brilliant 1946 psychological fantasy. Astoundingly, Beast earned an Academy Award Best Picture nomination (one of the Academy’s most embarrassing moments, which is saying a lot). Even more cringe-inducing was her 1994 Lion King, with its maudlin “Circle of Life” song upchucked by Elton John (who seems hell bent on proving that Bernie Taupin deserves all the credit for their collaborations) and Tim Rice (who seems hell bent on proving that Howard Ashman deserves all the credit for their collaborations). Woolverton’s resume expanded with more Alka-Seltzer slugfests, such as Beauty and the Beast: Enchanted Christmas (1997), Belle’s Magical World (1998), Mulan (1998), Lion King 2 (1998) and Maleficent (2014). Even in her most critically successful films (i.e Mulan) her writing never rises above formula, and what some feel might have worked in the projects she was attached to should be credited more to the animation and direction. Woolverton’s Alice made her direct-to-video, second-rate sequels look less embarrassing by comparison.
PLOT: Axel, a fish-tagger in New York City, dreams of an Eskimo boy who finds a fish with both eyes on one side of its head. His old friend Paul, an aspiring actor, visits him and tricks him into returning to his childhood home in Arizona to attend the wedding of his uncle, a Cadillac dealer, who wants Axel to join the family business. Axel decides not to return to his old life when he becomes romantically entangled with an emotionally unstable older woman and her suicidal stepdaughter.
This was Serbian director Emir Kusturica’s first (and so far, only) American film. For some reason, Warner Brothers threw gobs of money at a Yugoslavian director known for his surreal political art films, then was surprised when the result wasn’t a typical romantic comedy. The film was completed in 1991 but Warner sat on the property, not releasing it in the US until 1994, after a successful European run. Warner also cut 20 minutes from the film so that it would come in under 120 minutes. Kusturica and Hollywood did not make a good match, as both parties would surely agree.
A 12-minute final sequence that featured Uncle Leo (Jerry Lewis) flying to Earth from the moon in a Cadillac was cut from the film.
INDELIBLE IMAGE: Clearly, as every film poster and DVD cover for the film demonstrates, the halibut swimming through the desert air past a Saguaro cactus is the movie’s unforgettable bit. Kusturica himself agrees: “Isn’t this image of a fish swimming in a deserted architecture… the image of what we are? Dumb fishes, unable to do anything essential for their existence…”
THREE WEIRD THINGS: Eskimo dreams; floating fish; pantyhose suicide
WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: With intrusions of magical realism and cod-philosophizing by a cast of fish-counting dreamers, madwomen who dream of flying, and suicidal turtle-loving accordion players, Arizona Dream plays out like a European attempt to make a Coen brothers comedy. It’s quirkiness magnified to a metaphysical level.
PLOT: Poor, good-natured Charlie Bucket (Freddie Highmore) wins a coveted Golden Ticket to visit the fabulous chocolate factory owned by the mysterious Willy Wonka (Johnny Depp); once there, Charlie discovers that all of his fellow school-aged winners are hateful brats, and Mr. Wonka seems to have a few screws loose himself…
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Although it’s deliciously weird in the usual Tim Burton manner, this is probably the most benign and family-friendly of all his films. Even Frankenweenie is scarier.
COMMENTS: When Tim Burton’s visually sumptuous film of Roald Dahl’s 1964 book Charlie and the Chocolate Factory opened in 2005, there was much discussion of how the late Mr. Dahl felt that the earlier, classic 1971 movie Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory had toned down his often mean-spirited material. (This opinion was a little strange, considering that Dahl had written the screenplay.) The new film, it was said, was much more faithful to the book. Truth be told, both pictures hew very closely to the novel; but, although this might sound like sacrilege, Burton’s film is more impressive in almost every way than the earlier Gene Wilder movie. (Incidentally, the 1971 film was not very popular with anyone when it originally opened; it was only later that a whole new audience embraced the movie on television.) The 2005 version is by far the better directed and designed of the two films, but, although Johnny Depp’s Wonka is utterly delightful, he doesn’t come close to projecting the genuine menace, and, ironically enough, the fatherly warmth that Wilder did. Wilder gave a full-fledged, three-dimensional performance; Depp, while he is great fun to watch, is basically playing a cartoon. Of course, for those of us who saw the earlier film as children, Wilder made a tremendous impact. Who knows what the kids of 2005 felt when they saw Depp?
Mr. Depp looks and sounds something like Michael Jackson here (although he has Anna Wintour’s hair), and all the color has been digitally drained from his face. This Willy Wonka hates kids, and with good reason. Burton’s film makes it clear that the brats all survive their punishments in Wonka’s factory (another reason why this won’t make the List), while the 1971 version left their fates up in the air. The 2005 film does include some sequences from the book not in the earlier film, like the memorable bit where the tiresome Veruca Salt (Julia Winter) is attacked by nut-cracking squirrels, and the adventures of Prince Pondicherry (Nitin Ganatra). But some of screenwriter John August’s all-new additions, such as the revelation that Wonka’s estranged father (Christopher Lee) is a dentist, feel unnecessary. (The flashback to the young, candy-loving Wonka’s bad teeth and increasingly grotesque retainers are grisly fun, though, like something out of Little Shop of Horrors). Thankfully, Depp and Highmore, who co-starred together a year earlier in Finding Neverland, have good chemistry. The fact that Highmore is now playing psychotic killer Norman Bates on TV’s Bates Motel makes it look like another collaboration with Tim Burton would be a good idea.
PLOT: A shock comedian stranded in Manitoba, in desperate need for a replacement guest for his podcast, gets more than he bargained for when he answers an ad from an eccentric retired sailor who promises he has “many stories to tell.”
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Sure, some people are calling Tusk “the weirdest movie ever!,” but those are moviegoers whose cinematic diets consist almost exclusively of Kevin Smith stoner comedies. Heck, I’m not even sure this is Kevin Smith’s weirdest movie (he did bring us Chris Rock as the forgotten black 13th apostle in 1999’s Biblical apocalypse comedy Dogma). In my screening there was a 33% walkout rate, which sounds encouraging until you realize that there were only three of us in the theater. The evidence had to be scrapped on the basis of low sample size.
COMMENTS: Tusk almost literally seeks to answer the bizarre question that preoccupies its antagonist, “is man indeed a walrus at heart?” Most of the good will that the movie earns is for going all the way with its crazy premise, for its willingness to” go full walrus.” Most of the movie’s problems, on the other hand, come from its lumpy blend of horror and comedy, sincerity and irony. Tusk is sort of like what Human Centipede might have been, if it was made by people with triple digit IQs, but the script ultimately tries to do too much. Besides straight horror, it also fits in absurdism, a running series of Canada/USA culture clash jokes, and satire on the cruelty of Internet culture, and it doesn’t keep the many balls it juggles in the air at all times.
Although it’s certainly the blackest of comedies, at heart Tusk is a morality play. Wallace, who will become the film’s victim, begins as a victimizer. He hosts an improbably popular podcast whose sole purpose is to make fun of YouTube embarrassments, sort of like a version of “Tosh 2.0” with a mean streak that would make Howard Stern blanch. Long’s Wallace is smoothly loathsome, but when he picks up on references to Hemingway and “Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” you realize that there’s humanity buried somewhere under the crust of callousness. The deserving victim is a slasher movie trope designed so that we won’t feel bad when the character is offed, but Smith’s script takes on a much tougher task of making this victim simultaneously repulsive and sympathetic, of asking us to see the humanity beneath the monster. I don’t believe that the final symbolic redemption works on an emotional level, but I do appreciate the effort—it’s a nuanced, almost intellectual twist on the torture porn genre, more like “torture erotica.”
But for all the laudable ambition here, it’s a tough sell to say that Tusk overcomes its tone problems. The film’s comedy and horror, and its smart-assery and empathy, work against each other more than they support one another. The key illustration comes in the third act, when the focus shifts away from Wallace and his tormentor and onto the searchers combing the Canadian countryside looking for him. Tusk‘s “special guest star” leaps into the film as Guy Lapointe, a comic French Canadian detective in a beret with a Jacques Clouseau accent. It would probably be a fine performance in a wackier movie, but here it’s like a comic reef that springs a leak in a movie that was already limping to port. Lapointe essentially disappears at the movie’s climax, like the afterthought he is, and could have been written out of the script entirely: the part was always envisioned as a little more than gimmicky cameo to highlight some decidedly non-Quebecois celebrity hamming it up with a goofy accent (Smith’s original choice for the role was Quentin Tarantino). This broad performance is divisive, at best, but it is clearly out-of-step with the surrounding material, and my (quite common) reaction was to see it as a distraction and time-stretcher, rather than a comic interlude that throws the surrounding horror into relief. All in all, Tusk is the sort of movie that seems doomed to be considered “an interesting experiment.” Conceived of almost on the spot during a podcast where Smith pitched the story in real time based on a hoax advertisement about an old sailor looking for a roommate, the finished work plays like a movie made on a dare.
Although Tusk isn’t the kind of movie that gets remembered come awards season, there is one category it honestly deserves a nomination: Robert Kurtzman’s makeup.
FEATURING:Johnny Depp, Winona Ryder, Dianne Wiest, Anthony Michael Hall, Kathy Baker, Vincent Price, Alan Arkin, Robert Oliveri, Conchata Ferrell, Caroline Aaron, Dick Anthony Williams, O-Lan Jones
PLOT: Avon lady Peg (Wiest) finds a strange boy named Edward (Depp) with scissors for hands living in a Gothic castle next to her candy-colored suburban neighborhood. Since his father/creator (Price) has died, Peg brings Edward home with her. At first, the town embraces Edward’s landscaping and hairdressing skills, but when he falls in love with Peg’s daughter (Ryder), complications arise.
WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Because it’s probably the most personal film directed by Tim Burton, arguably the weirdest filmmaker ever to achieve consistent, mainstream success within the Hollywood studio system. Burton never fully defines the film as either fantasy or science fiction; Edward is something like the Frankenstein monster, with Price as a benevolent mad scientist.
COMMENTS: This unlikely vehicle was really the film that turned the photogenic Johnny Depp into a movie star. (Intriguingly, Depp’s first starring role was actually in Cry-Baby, directed by another iconoclastic filmmaker, John Waters.) With his dead-white skin and rat’s nest hairdo, Edward Scissorhands vaguely resembles Robert Smith, lead singer of the rock group The Cure. Edward’s hair also looks something like Burton’s. This was also the first of eight collaborations so far between Depp and Burton, who obviously see each other as kindred spirits. The film itself is a fabulously Gothic fairy tale, with an unexpectedly downbeat ending, a great deal of Burtonesque humor, and any number of haunting images, all backed up by Danny Elfman’s beautiful and mournful music. Both Burton and Elfman have called this their favorite of their own films. The film is set in a full-blown Burton universe, with all of his strange quirks and eccentricities (he wrote the story; Caroline Thompson penned the screenplay). After Edward, all of the live-action films directed by Burton have been based on material created by others (Mars Attacks, Alice in Wonderland, etc.), but this is unfiltered Tim Burton, melancholy and delightfully weird. Somehow, this director’s Disney-in-Hell vision has been palatable to mainstream audiences, unlike, say, the Surrealist nightmares of David Lynch. (It’s amusing to compare Burton’s satiric portrait of suburbia here with Lynch’s terrifying town of Lumberton in Blue Velvet). The movie is obviously semi-autobiographical for Burton, with Edward being only one of his many white-faced protagonists–Pee-Wee Herman, Barnabbas Collins, Beetlejuice, etc.–and Edward definitely does not fit in the suburbs, which is the way Burton has always said he felt growing up in Burbank. (Ironically, Burbank is a place that Burton, in a way, never left, since most of his films have been for Disney or Warner Bros, which are both located in that city, though Edward was produced at 20th Century Fox.) If any Tim Burton film can make the List, this, his most personal picture, should be the one.
Humphrey Bogart once said: “The industry hurts itself by making so many lousy movies—as if General Motors deliberately put out a bad car.” Bogart did not try to defend his own contribution to slipshod productions: “I have made more lousy movies than actor in history.” That statement was a slight exaggeration, but at least Bogart did not go the route of Johnny Depp’s recent insinuation that there is a critical conspiracy to see The Lone Ranger (2013) fail. For the producers’ sake Depp should indeed promote such an expensive endeavor, even if he himself does not like the finished product. However, Depp’s aggressive defense against the overwhelming critical consensus is an incredulous and depressing parody by an artist long dead.
Depp was indeed an artist once, careful about the roles he appeared in. His body of work revealed an actor whose choices were guided by love of challenge and exploration, as opposed to box office appeal. His collaboration with the young Tim Burton seemed an ideal pairing of two pop revolutionaries. Unfortunately, that ideal climaxed with Ed Wood (1994). Since then, both Burton and Depp have come to personify the Hollywood Sell-Out. Both were ruined by their work with the imposter company now claiming to be Disney Studios. Depp, it seems, can no longer distinguish a good script from a bad script; or, most likely, he no longer cares. He has gone the opposite route of an actor like Burt Lancaster. Once Lancaster achieved a degree of mainstream success, he began to seek out roles that transformed his late body of work into something approaching incandescence. In sharp contrast, Depp has become increasingly vapid. Tellingly, Depp’s “other” big collaboration is with a Disney director (Gore Verbinski) who birthed an entire franchise from a theme park ride. For the studio, that is a steep decline from classics as innovative as Pinocchio (1940), artistically risky as Fantasia (1940), or as exquisitely organic as Dumbo (1941). For Depp, this amounts to the polyurethane varnish on the caricature he has become. In place of Edward Scissorhands, Gilbert Grape, Ed Wood, Don Juan, William Blake, Raoul Duke or Cesar, we are witness to a fossilized Depp encased in his own career avarice. While he has certainly surpassed his monetary goals, that success will prove to be the derailing of a once admirable oeuvre. Depp’s fan base, naturally, remains in denial.
The Lone Ranger (2013) is yet another example of cinematic postmodern arrogance. Of course, we need not put a B level pulp character that was probably most interesting during the days of radio on a pedestal. A few of the Clayton Moore/Jay Silverheels movies and TV shows were moderately entertaining, albeit as products of their time. Yet, Verbinski, Depp and the film’s plethora of screenwriters serve up a thoroughly unentertaining mess. Erroneously thinking themselves clever and hip deconstructionists of naïve filmmakers past, their idea of entertainment amounts to an early heart-eating scene, and the protagonist being dragged through a pile of horse excrement. Amazingly, it goes downhill from there.
True to postmodern tenets, the film borrows from virtually everything and never finds its own identity. It makes the classic “haven’t we learned yet?” mistake of casting a white man in the role of a Native American. It’s akin to Al Jolson slapping on blackface. Predictably, the filmmakers take the PC route of making the white man look dumb, while a white man is passing for an Indian. This is merely one of the movie’s numerous hypocrisies.
The movie weaves Anti-American sentiment throughout, manifested in the portrayal of silver-hoarding executives of the train company. It could have played out as a well-deserved sentiment if the film itself had not echoed the gluttonous white shareholders. Dumbed-down crude jokes and loud explosions saturate the excessive second half.
Oh, and I did forget to mention Armie Hammer as the Lone Ranger himself? That’s rather easy to do, since he has no charisma. Worse, he has no chemistry with Depp’s Tonto. Predictably, Tonto is the main character, which is problematic when he is nothing more than an eccentric buffoon. Alas, there is not a single, likable character. The Lone Ranger himself is reduced to a clueless representative of naïve patriotism, shorn of morals (he only saves Tonto’s life because he needs the Indian’s assistance). His “creed” is a law book, which he attempts to adhere to in the face of surrounding ignorant religiosity (Western Christianity and Native American spirituality are treated with equal contempt). Helena Bonham Carter (Mrs. Tim Burton) shows up for a cameo, which should have been (and is) a bad omen. She is a whore with a gun hidden in a peg leg, but still manages to make the character dull. Only the horse, Silver, has an iota of personality, but even he is not spared belching jokes.
By the time we hear Rossini’s “William Tell Overture,” we are too numb and too tired to care. The movie opens and ends (2 and a half hours later!) with a Little Big Man (1970) rip-off. It was the first and last item from the kitchen sink.
In my review of Man of Steel (2013) I referred to that movie as postmodernism at its worst. I stand corrected.
Although I watch a lot of films, for various reasons I’m not huge on reviewing them. However, seeing as I’ve been a “Dark Shadows” fan for over 40 years and a Tim Burton fan since Pee Wee’s Big Adventure (1985), I thought perhaps his new epic deserved a paragraph or two from me. I saw it this past weekend on the Hamilton IMAX screen in what seemed liked a rather depopulated theater, but I’m not sure what their usual Sunday crowd is like–perhaps everyone else was taking their mom to dinner for Mother’s Day. At any rate. . .
I had followed the dribbling out of info and photos over the past year or so and had seen the infamous trailer that makes the film look like “Vampires Suck Part Deux”. As a disciple of the original series, none of this sat any better with me than I think it did for most fans. Once more we have Tim Burton going his own way without much regard for audience’s expectations or their affection for the originals (think especially Planet of the Apes or even more so his Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, the latter of which I still haven’t managed to make it all the way through.) I can understand not working toward expectations, but is it always necessary to tread on sacred ground with jackboots? This being said I will consider Dark Shadows from two different perspectives: as a remake of the original series, and as another entry in the auteur’s canon.
Many fans of the original series are going to hate this film. Hands down. Jonathan Frid’s beloved, beautiful, complex, tortured Barnabas Collins has been morphed into a typically Burtonesque, overly made-up, funny pages version of the character, ripe for rendering into dolls and action figures. Johnny Depp‘s pancake makeup is so thick and obvious he constantly makes the viewer think of someone made up as Dracula for Halloween (indeed, one wonders if this isn’t partly the idea–this is Tim and Johnny’s Continue reading GUEST REVIEW: DARK SHADOWS (2012)→
COMMENTS: For better or worse, it’s impossible to avoid comparing Rum Diary (unfavorably) with Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. The film’s producers can’t complain the comparison is unfair, because they cut a trailer that’s obviously aimed at hooking Loathing fans: it’s filled with boozy shenanigans, a bowling ball knocking down ten pin rum bottles, and Johnny Depp promising, in his best deadpan Hunter S. Thompson drawl, “all of this might sound like some crazed hallucination…” Diary even contains a mild LSD trip sequence that sees Michael Rispoli’s tongue extend six feet in the air “like an accusatory giblet”; of course, this sixty seconds of psychedelics occupies a prime place in the marketing scheme. There’s also a scene with a voodoo priestess who coughs up frogs—and that’s about it on the weirdness front. The rest of the movie is a series of drunken war stories in which part-time journalist, full-time imbiber and would-be novelist Paul Kemp (Thompson’s alter-ego, played by Depp as a less manic and assured Raoul Duke) worries about “finding his voice” and flirts with joining up with the “Bastards.” Why the Bastards (represented by real-estate developer Aaron Eckhart) are so keen to recruit horoscope writer Kemp into their venal cabal isn’t clear; corrupting idealists is what makes them Bastards, I guess. Also not clear is what’s so darn evil about their plan to build a hotel that would supply thousands of jobs for the local populace on land previously only used for the noble purpose of naval test bombing. Their marketing plan, which would involve Kemp slipping some favorable words into his columns, is unethical, sure, but hardly a screaming headline, page one outrage. But the scheme’s investors smoke cigars and complain about Negros and Communists, so they are pretty clearly villainous. Despite their wickedness, though, the only moral objections Kemp actually raises have to do with the way Eckhart treats his flighty, arm-candy lover (Amber Heard, who looks fabulous in a bikini but disappears from the movie like a neglected girlfriend). Joining Depp, Eckhart and Heard are Rispoli and Giovanni Ribisi as a couple of colorful drinking buddies (Rispoli plays his photographer role like a 1940s New York City cabbie, while Nazi-obsessed basket case Ribisi affects an annoying whine). The trio’s wandering adventures build to a remarkable anticlimax. None of the plot lines dangled off this tropical pier snag a catch, but Kemp/Thompson does eventually find his literary voice—too bad for us it only happens after he’s finished narrating this tale. It’s pleasant to see Depp reprise his role as Thompson, and there are memorable lines of dialogue and set pieces (all of which find their way into the trailer). But the movie sips at drunken insanity rather than gulping it down; it never goes four-sheets-to-the-wind crazy. The tone of muted madness here doesn’t do justice to Thompson’s gonzo spirit. Call it “Mild Concern and Dislike in San Juan.”
“The Rum Diary” was written by Thompson some time in the late 1950s or early 1960s but was rejected by several publishers. Johnny Depp reportedly discovered the manuscript in Thompson’s basement while he was researching the writer’s mannerisms in preparation for his role in Fear and Loathing. Depp encouraged Thompson to revise the lost novel; it was published in 1998. The actor also served as executive producer for this adaptation.
PLOT: Mild-mannered accountant Bill Blake heads west to take a job as an accountant in the wild town of Machine, but when he arrives he discovers the position has been filled and he is stuck on the frontier with no money or prospects. Blake becomes a wanted man after he kills the son of the town tycoon in self defense. Wounded, he flees to the wilderness where he’s befriended by an Indian named Nobody, who believes he is the poet William Blake.
William Blake, the namesake of Johnny Depp’s character in Dead Man, was a poet, painter and mystic who lived from 1757 to 1827. Best known for Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience, he is considered one of the forerunners of English Romanticism.
Jarmusch wrote the script with Depp and Farmer in mind for the leads.
Elements of the finished script of Dead Man reportedly bear a striking similarity to “Zebulon,” an unpublished screenplay by novelist/screenwriter Rudy (Glen and Randa, Two-Lane Blacktop) Wurlitzer, which Jarmusch had read and discussed filming with the author. Wurlitzer later reworked the script into the novel The Drop Edge of Yonder.
Film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum coined the term “acid Western”—a category in which he also included The Shooting,Greaser’s Palace andEl Topo—to describe Dead Man. Jarmusch himself called the film a “psychedelic Western.”
Neil Young composed the harsh, starkly beautiful soundtrack by improvising on electric guitar while watching the final cut of the film. The Dead Man soundtrack (buy) includes seven solo guitar tracks from Young, plus film dialogue and clips of Depp reciting William Blake’s poetry.
Farmer speaks three Native American languages in the film: Blackfoot, Cree, and Makah (which he learned to speak phonetically). None of the indigenous dialogue is subtitled.
Jarmusch, who retains all the rights to his films, refused to make cuts to Dead Man requested by distributor Miramax; the director believed that the film was dumped on the market without sufficient promotion because of his reluctance to play along with the sudio.
INDELIBLE IMAGE: Nobody peering through William Blake’s skin to his bare skull during his peyote session? Iggy Pop in a prairie dress? Those are memorable moments, but in a movie inspired by poetry, it’s the scene of wounded William Blake, his face red with warpaint, curling up on the forest floor with a dead deer that’s the most poetically haunting.
WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Dead Man is a lyrical and hypnotic film, with a subtle but potent and
Original trailer for Dead Man
lingering weirdness that the viewer must tease out. It’s possible to view the movie merely as a directionless, quirky indie Western; but that would be to miss out on the mystical, dreamlike tinge of this journey into death.
PLOT: Journalist Raoul Duke heads to Las Vegas with his attorney (“Dr. Gonzo”) and a suitcase full of exotic drugs to cover a motorcycle race. Somewhere around Barstow, the drugs start to take hold. The mission changes into a quest to find the secret of the American Dream, an excuse for an orgy of hallucinogenic hedonism and dangerously antisocial behavior as the pair tromp through the unreal neon wonderland of Sin City.
The character of Dr. Gonzo, played by Benicio Del Toro in the film, was based on Hunter S. Thompson’s real-life friend Oscar Zeta Acosta, an attorney/activist. Acosta mysteriously disappeared three years after the publication of “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” in 1974 while traveling through Mexico and has not been seen since.
The original script for the film was written by Alex Cox and his colleague Tod Davies, but differences between Cox and the producer Laila Nabulsi, as well as open disdain of his treatment by an unhappy Hunter S. Thompson, led to the script being dropped. This left only a few precious days for Terry Gilliam and screenwriter Tony Grisoni to write a new script to begin production with. Gilliam and Grisoni allegedly finished their script in only eight days, with two additional days for rewrites.
Featured heavily in the opening of the book, the Rolling Stones track “Sympathy for the Devil” was going to be the opening theme that set the tone for the rest of the film, but Allen Klein, former manager of The Rolling Stones and owner of a sizable chunk of their early library, demanded an exorbitant $300,000 for the song. As this would have devoured half of the soundtrack budget, so Terry Gilliam opted for the more fiscally reasonable “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” as the closing track.
INDELIBLE IMAGE: We’ll go with the scene where Duke, who is peaking on acid while checking into the Mint hotel and has already seen the carpet climbing up a cowboy’s leg and hotel clerk Katherine Helmond‘s face stretching like Silly Putty, suddenly sees the denizens of the hotel bar transformed into a tribe of literal lounge lizards.
WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Master fantasist Terry Gilliam brings Hunter S. Thompson’s semi-autobiographical satirical novel about a degenerate journalist and his equally debased attorney companion whose idea of a good time is to sniff ether and scarf mescaline before striding into the whirling carnival of the Bazooka Circus casino to howling life. Raoul Duke and Dr. Gonzo’s increasingly deranged pilgrimage to the Mecca of American venality turns into a grim and perverse endurance test for both them and the viewer, as the pair see how far they can push the limits of decency without losing their lives, freedom or sanity.
Original trailer for Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas
COMMENTS: When Terry Gilliam was promoting Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas in 1998, I recall him saying two things on the interview circuit that stuck out: first, he hated drugs. Secondly, he hated Las Vegas. Those confessions made me question whether he was the appropriate man to adapt the cult novel about two modern savages rampaging through Sin City while chugging down a psychedelic rainbow of hallucinogenic substances. The contemporaneous response to the film suggested the pairing was, indeed, a mismatch. Pitched as a comic romp, the puke-stained antics of Dr. Gonzo proved too disgustingly visceral for most critics and viewers. Some fans of the novel found Gilliam’s vision too grotesque, lacking the novel’s context and sense of humor, while newcomers to the story saw only a meandering tale about two antisocial drunks acting like asses. Even my initial review of the movie in 1998 was slightly negative: I wrote “Gilliam films the novel quite literally… and the literalism is part of the reason why the movie fails. The novel was about venality, depravity and corruption, but the movie simply is venal, depraved and corrupt. The novel is a swirl of reality, supposition, imagination, hallucination and exaggeration, but we are always safe in the hands of Thompson, whose prose gives the sense of blindly groping for meaning amidst the bestiality. By putting these depictions on the screen without his mediation… we only garner a sense of disgust as we witness Dr. Gonzo puking his guts out in graphic detail…”
There’s still something to that criticism, but Fear and Loathing has proven to be a movie that has stood the test of time: it’s better on a second viewing, after the initial shock and disgust has worn off. As a comic romp featuring a pair of lovably hip scamps putting one over on the establishment Vegas squares, the movie does fail. But what made the novel linger in the mind was not only the picaresque drug trips and Duke’s crazy sleep-deprived schemes, but also the undercurrent of sadness expressed in the book (and movie’s) epigram: “He who makes a beast of himself gets rid of the pain of being a man.”
Fear and Loathing is a tragedy about disillusionment disguised as a comedy about rebellion. The opening scenes—with Depp swatting at the imaginary bats he sees reflected in his mirrored shades as he and Del Toro terrify a hitchhiking hayseed hippie with tall tales about traveling to Vegas to rub out a scag baron—do set a tone of off-kiler alt-humor. Dr. Gonzo fires a pistol into the air, but it only clicks; unlike the man wielding it, it’s not loaded. The pair of rapscallions are essentially harmless. Depp and Del Toro appear to be Merry Pranksters, holy fools infiltrating the green felt halls of the rich and mighty. Their intentions are pure; after spending the night before the journey stoned on the beach, Duke proclaims the trip to Vegas is to be “an affirmation of everything right and true in the national character, a gross physical salute to the possibilities of life in this country.”
And, for a little while, it is. Through the film’s first half, Duke and Gonzo’s adventures are of the put-one-over-on-the-squares variety. They mock the sacred institutions of the Debbie Reynolds Showroom. They try to keep it together while bombed out of their gourds, as the faces of the hotel staff morph into serpents and the power of speech forsakes them. They search for the American dream and find only miserable suburban gamblers looking for Tom Jones tickets and a cheap shrimp cocktail. The trip peaks on the midway to the Bazooka Circus, a bizarre hyperreality that makes psychedelics superfluous. High above the casino floor a trapeze routine involves a pregnant acrobat giving birth to a baby astronaut, complete with umbilical cord. A cowboy barker offers the chance for your image to appear on the Strip 200 feet tall. It’s the American dream seen in funhouse mirrors.
But it’s too much stimulation; between hiccups, a dyspeptic Dr. Gonzo mumbles that he’s got “the Fear.” Back in the hotel room, he takes a whole sheet of blotter acid and, knife in hand, climbs into a bathtub filled with dirty brown water and bobbing grapefruit and begs Duke to electrocute him with the tape recorder when Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit” peaks. Duke locks him in the bathroom and reflects that Gonzo’s high is over; marinating in his own filth, the poor bastard will now have to endure one of those “hellishly intense introspective nightmares.”
Duke takes the break in the action as a chance to write and reflect; he remembers San Francisco in 1965, the burgeoning LSD scene and the feeling that in that time and place “There was madness in any direction, at any hour… You could strike sparks anywhere. There was a fantastic universal sense that whatever we were doing was right, that we were winning. Our energy would simply prevail… We had all the momentum; we were riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave…” Seven years later, in this Las Vegas hotel room with an armed roommate in the grips of drug psychosis, he realizes that youthful dream is long past. Gazing out his window, he muses that he “can almost see the high-water mark—that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back.”
This central “wave” speech is the first time we realize that the Las Vegas trip itself, which begins in hope and a spirit of fun and ends in hedonistic degradation, is an allegory for the defeat of the naïve ideas of the 1960s counterculture. From this point on, the comic tone of the film slowly shifts into the background, as the costs of Duke and Gonzo’s overindulgence starts to catch up with them. Things really go wrong when Duke takes too much adrenochrome, turns beet red and sees multiple Richard Nixon heads invading his hotel room. (Adrenochrome, a mythical psychedelic stimulant that can only be extracted from a freshly harvested human adrenal gland, is a symbol of the “bad drugs” like speed and heroin that were scarfed up in the dying days of the Sixties by indiscriminate hippies reared on the “peace and love” drugs like pot and LSD). The story becomes more fractured, a series of barely sketched incidents of the boys breaking open coconuts with hammers and screaming incoherently at middle-class motorists gawking at the lights of the Strip. Scenes of Del Toro emptying his guts into the toilet bowl or out the window of the convertible proliferate. Their hotel room is trashed beyond all semblance of reality; bottles and syringes float in an inch of liquid, the walls are smeared with Playboy pinups and ketchup, and someone has set up a shrine to Debbie Reynolds, complete with glitter and Christmas lights.
These low points of the trip reach their nadir in a quiet scene that’s performed with the pounding realism of a hangover. Out of pure boredom, Dr. Gonzo pulls out his trusty knife and psychologically abuses a hard-luck waitress, played with dignity by an achingly human Ellen Barkin. Duke can only sit by and watch, as if he’s been detached from his worse half and forced to observe the atrocity. Depp’s performance in this scene as slinks out of the diner, returning his plate of food silently with the sad realization that the violation goes far beyond the possibility of any apology he could offer, is one of the few truly decent moments Depp allows his caricature. It’s the point at which Duke realizes their experiment in the antisocial has gone too far. Once, he thought their positive energy would prevail over the official forces of corruption, the powers behind Jim Crow and Vietnam; now, the aging refugees of the Love Generation were terrorizing poor women at knife-point. It suddenly appears that the titular loathing is as rightfully directed toward the hero as it is toward the establishment.
Focusing on the theme of disillusionment and loss of innocence–both countercultural and personal—may be the key to unlocking the power of the film. With its intoxicated camerawork, CGI hallucinations and neon lit unreality, the movie works as pure eye candy and hallucinogenic spectacle. As a comedy, it’s less successful; but Gilliam does capture the loathing of the tale. The script’s downward spiral into ever worsening psychosis makes for a hard sell, particularly for those who come looking for a psychedelic wish-fulfillment fantasy, a simple tale of weirdos triumphing over squares by sheer force of weirdness. That surface element is there, but it’s the way Gilliam taps into the underlying sadness of Thompson’s decline and breakdown that makes the film distressing, memorable, and ultimately beautiful.
FEAR AND LOATHING script analysis – David Morgan breaks down the differences between Alex Cox’ original script and Gilliam’s rewrite, and explains why Gilliam burnt his Writer’s Guild of America card
DVD INFO: As befits a bizarre film, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas has had a strange history on DVD. Since the movie was a failure in theaters, Universal did not invest too much in their original 1998 release, issuing a disc with a deleted scenes and a ten-minute behind-the-scenes featurette as the only extras. Sensing a cult film in the making, the Criterion Collection bought the distribution rights to the film in 2003 and issued a lavish 2-disc Special Edition (buy). Headlined by three separate commentary tracks—one from Gilliam, one by Depp and Del Toro, and one featuring Hunter Thompson himself—and an entire disc full of supplemental material on Thompson and the film. The popularity of the Criterion edition helped launch a reappraisal of the film, which had been almost universally panned by critics.
In 2006 it appeared that Universal realized they had made a mistake by under-marketing the film, and they re-issued their version of the movie—in the doomed HD DVD format. In 2010 they wised up and issued a Blu-ray (buy) with additional “Blu-ray live” features and D-Box motion simulation capabilities. Assuming that Universal had reacquired their rights from Criterion, many movie fans, including yours truly, purchased the Universal Blu-ray in 2010. We’d been had, however, as 2011 saw Criterion release their special edition on Blu-ray (buy)! Since the Criterion edition is clearly superior, the only reason to buy Universal’s competing Blu is to save money.
Fear and Loathing can also be rented or purchased digitally (rent on-Demand).
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