Film Scouts Diaries

1998 Cannes Film Festival Diaries
Cannes Diary #4: Fear & Loathing on the Riviera

by Lisa Nesselson

According to Jean Giraudoux: "The secret of success is sincerity. Once you can fake that, you've got it made."

In Terry Gilliam's screen adaptation of Hunter. S. Thompson's "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas," Raoul Duke (Johnny Depp) and his Samoan attorney Dr. Gonzo (Benicio del Torro) are sincerely twisted at all times and permanently engaged in the struggle to appear straight. To hold down the mental fort and "maintain" while inviting trouble and debauchery at every turn. One of the great unadapted books of the century (note my ability to sincerely hold forth with hyperbole) might have played better as a feature cartoon made from the distinctive pen and ink drawings of Ralph Steadman.

The previous day's Competition film, "The Little Rose Seller" from Colombia, portrayed glue-sniffing adolescents as a sorry sight, forced to vaporize their sorrows in the fumes from chemical solvents. "Fear and Loathing" portrays grown men as consenua, nay DELIBERATE, walking pharmacies, constantly refilling virtual prescriptions before they run out or wear off. Proudly and excessively consuming mind-altering substances of every description because it's 1971 and it seems like the thing to do.

In prose form this is wildly amusing. On screen it is neither wild or amusing enough. That said, Depp does a spot-on impression of the book's author

Has the studio put much thought into merchandising, I wonder? Do office supply stores still carry blotters (useful in the transport of blotter acid)? Are there toy ether dispensers (along the lines of Pez)? And how 'bout stuffed lounge lizards or magic glasses to make the floor seem to melt or give way beneath your feet?

Eighteen-year-old Christina Ricci plays a 14-year-old painter (specializing in portraits of Barbra Streisand) who is fed acid by Del Toro's character, the better to take advantage of her youth and innocence. Ricci told the April issue of "Movieline" that the only unpleasant aspect of her five days on the film "was doing exteriors in Vegas because it's so goddamn hot. The proof that we live in a masochistic society is that Las Vegas is the fastest growing city in America."

Actually, the proof that we live in a masochistic society is that some several thousand film critics and chroniclers make the trek to Cannes each year and sit through four or five (or more!) feature films daily for 12 days in the tacit belief that some of them will be exceptional. Since many of the movies on display should not have been displayed outside the immediate family of the filmmaker, one feels great empathy for this or any other festival's programming committee, whose members were certainly exposed to dross, drivel and dreck beyond description in their search for work they felt they could proffer with pride.

Gonzo journalism, so refreshing and "out there" in its day, has been incorporated into the news media in America. Gilliam did the best he could with material whose synchronicity has certainly come and gone. There was, alas, far more gonzo to be had in Gilliam's animated interludes on the original Monty Python's Flying Circus shows.

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