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Terry Gilliam makes elaborate, phantasmagorical movies about big ideas—dystopia and tyranny, the fate of civilization, the concrete magic of falsehood. But it’s hard to see why. Gilliam slathers on the imaginative foofaraw but conceals what it is he cares about. Even ice-cold formalists’ hearts are in the formalities: Peter Greenaway’s visuals are daunting enough to distract from his lack of soul; Atom Egoyan lets his characters feel even while the director remains excruciatingly detached and rigorous.

Lack of engagement is a central lacuna in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. The movie is based on the 1971 book by Hunter S. Thompson, which unleashed “gonzo journalism” on the American public and ushered in a second, workaday wave of Beat culture. Gilliam’s detachment also somehow serves the subject, because what’s so fascinating about Thompson is his utter self-containment. The movie refuses to take a Hollywood stance on Thompson as a character; his participation in the drug culture of the late ’60s and early ’70s, his unique status as a thoroughly modern and particularly dangerous version of the hard-living journalist, and the resonant idiosyncrasies of his personality and physical self (still comin’ atcha as Doonesbury’s “Duke”) are neither mythologized nor punished nor, come to think of it, redeemed. Fitting for the character, certainly, but treating such a forceful, twisted, furious text as a slice of life does leave the moviegoing audience shaking its collective head.

Johnny Depp plays Thompson—here obscurely calling himself Raoul Duke for the sake of a magazine assignment—with maximum commitment and smarts. The Johnny Depp-ness of his face is not always breachable, but he channels that famous voice, a propulsive mutter spoken around cigarette-holder lockjaw. Like everything else about Thompson—rolling, bowlegged walk, ridiculous sunglasses, old-man’s pants, and fishing hat—the voice is so unreal as to seem a put-on. But the key to its authenticity—and to Thompson’s status as, for better or worse, an American original—is its lack of allusiveness; he’s not sending up anything that existed before.

That’s how Gilliam and the three other screenwriters (including filmmaker Alex Cox, who has no rhythm and tends to erase his own gonzo visions as he develops them) manage to keep away from the ’60s myths and the facile ironies they engender in less imaginative hands. Bear with the dopey opening sequence of sepia-tinted footage—anti-war marchers, blah blah blah—backed by a syrupy recording of “My Favorite Things,” because such nostalgic counterpointing is soon left for dead. The period is not a motif but a joke, an absurd accident; the larger, more interesting point is that Thompson would have indulged to an operatic degree in whatever time he had lived in. His participation in the various madnesses that attracted him—drugs, booze, Las Vegas, guns, even journalism—is a function of sensibility, not reaction.

Vegas in 1971, of course, was conducive to operatically self-destructive behavior, and as imagined by Gilliam, that’s the only sensible response to the place. A circus-themed hotel is a nightmarish extravaganza of elaborately costumed staff, terrifying carnival games, and a demented carousel bar. The press tent, where reporters wait for the start of the motorcycle race they are covering, is like a battlefield office, with indolent men in khaki playing cards and filling the room with smoke as the bikes outside kick up obfuscating dust. The hotel rooms are fantasies of swinging bachelor pads, with mod cons and outrageous decor. No wonder Duke and his “attorney,” a bushy, unbalanced fellow calling himself “Dr. Gonzo” (Benicio Del Toro), must take every drug in their well-stocked case to extend their own insanity beyond that offered by a suite and stroll through the lobby.

Kicking off the narration with Thompson’s immortal opening line, an aggressive update on James M. Cain’s fabulous “They threw me off the hay truck at noon,” Fear and Loathing follows Duke and Doc through the Mojave as they pick up and frighten a beatifically stupid hitchhiker (Tobey Maguire) before pulling into town. This scene is bookended by a nasty vignette at its close, in which Dr. Gonzo menaces a desert waitress (Ellen Barkin), a torn-down beauty who has been eating customer shit for decades but has no recourse against this brand of wacko evil. The pair do damage only when outside of Vegas, in a world that sets a much lower base line of indigenous craziness. It is the high-flying Duke who terrifies the hitchhiker, but he remains oysterlike and observant at the diner, where he is clearly not accountable for the ugliness, nor willing to stop it.

In between, the two trade the role of instigator, with Duke bedeviled by people morphing into monsters and an undulating carpet as they try to check in and Dr. Gonzo freaking out murderously as well as suicidally in the suite bathtub. It all culminates in an explosively disorienting trip, thanks to a massive dose of human adrenal gland; Duke wakes up in what’s left of the hotel room, ankle-deep in water, wearing hip waders and a dinosaur tail, with a tape-recorder strapped to his chest and a mike duct-taped to his face. Bits of what happened over the last mad hours are shown in flashback as Duke presses the Play button.

Gilliam is a supreme technician; Fear and Loathing is a kaleidoscopic mélange of flashbacks and time jumps, but it is seamlessly and beautifully ordered. He doesn’t attempt the always futile and unfunny bent images and weirded-out sound of I’m-so-on-drugs movies, allowing us to experience what the characters do. He slips inside and outside their vantage points—their disorientation provided by the surroundings, action, and some tricky, upsetting camera work—while keeping a concrete, clockwork sense of time. It is more frightening and strange to be sucked only halfway into Duke and the Doctor’s twisted world, never far enough to muffle the loud ticking of the other one.

Much of this should be hilarious, as should their conversation, but the wacked-out slapstick never takes off, and you lose about half the talk in the haze of drug-drawl and Depp’s ubiquitous cigarette holder. The cameo roles are flashy if obtrusive—Lyle Lovett, Harry Dean Stanton, and Penn Jillette smother their parts, but the subtler almost-stars like Christina Ricci as a sad born-again teenage pilgrim, Gary Busey as a distinctly odd motorcycle cop, and Cameron Diaz as a china-doll reporter provide just the mind-bending touch that Vegas breeds.

Still, Fear and Loathing is riotous without being funny, and if Thompson’s detachment is his most commendable quality, it doesn’t do much for a filmmaker. Here and there Gilliam lets the original text rant about the illusory nature of the American dream, but he understands that standing up to this particular windmill is not only lame-brained but unimportant. What is important is that Thompson so perfectly straddled the two times that crashed about him in those strange years. At the end of the movie, Duke pecks at his typewriter in that space-goose way, delineating the difference between Timothy Leary’s elusive promises of acid mind-freedom and his own hard-edged and perilous Me-Decade hedonism. Here the film comes closest to the truth, although that’s all it ever nestles against. At its best, Fear and Loathing is mouth-dryingly fascinating to observe and a totally idiosyncratic visual achievement; at its worst, it’s a necessary object, but one more proof that, unless you’re on them, too, watching other people on drugs is never as much fun as they claim to be having.CP