Hunter S. Thompson's Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is the great American novel most writers are too timid to attempt--an epic road trip undertaken by two men whose constant consumption of drugs and booze offers scant relief from the death of the American dream. Criterion's two-disc special edition of Terry Gilliam's adaptation of Fear and Loathing features generous background information on both the film and the book, including behind-the-scenes material, deleted scenes and audio commentaries. (For more insight into Thompson, check out Wayne Ewing's documentary Breakfast with Hunter, reviewed on page 65.)
Although directing duties first belonged to Alex Cox (Sid and Nancy), the striking imagery of Gilliam's over-the-top visual style is perfectly suited for what must have initially seemed an impossible task. In the first of three audio commentary tracks, Thompson cheerfully goads the director, referring to Gilliam as a "homophobe" and a "limey fag cartoonist," but ultimately admits that the film successfully captures the "prevailing spirit" of his book. Thompson's commentary, occasionally punctuated by shrieking, showcases his remarkable way with words in phrases such as "he shuddered like a hound dog passing a peach pit."
Through the supplementary material, we learn more about lawyer Oscar Acosta (the inspiration for Dr. Gonzo, portrayed in the film by Benicio Del Toro), who was later disbarred. Thompson derides LSD guru Timothy Leary as a fraudulent sell-out, a government informant, and a "treacherous creep." And we learn Thompson was pleased with Depp's portrayal of Raoul Duke (the character who represents the author), but he takes issue with the actor's improvised decision to throw change at a dwarf in an early scene. (Gilliam's insistence on the gratuitous casting of dwarves will amuse those who remember Peter Dinklage's brilliant tirade in Tom DiCillo's Living in Oblivion.)
A second audio track features Depp and Del Toro. Both actors claim that, despite the extreme lifestyle depicted in the film, neither of them could have functioned properly if they had actually been stoned during shooting. Del Toro recalls Thompson's warning that the role would end his career, and although he has since starred in several high-profile films, he admits that he did briefly encounter difficulty getting hired after playing Gonzo. The actors discuss their use of improvisation, and Depp describes his complete immersion in the role, including wearing some of the same clothes that Thompson wore in the early '70s. Gilliam's audio commentary offers a witty peek into his thought process, as well as an account of the film's disastrous reception at Cannes.
Criterion's Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: Special Edition is a wonderful example of what is great about DVDs. Brimming with a wealth of bonus material, this special-edition set helps to further deepen America's understanding of one of its greatest living writers, and the film inspired by his words.