I had forgotten just how good an actor Bill Murray was until a couple of years ago when Lost in Translation brought his dry sardonic sense of humour and excellent comic timing back into the limelight. Going back over the years you can see his skills come into play in myriad movies, not only the more commonly known hits Ghostbusters and Groundhog Day, but also his smaller movies like Caddyshack. Back in 1980, when he did not have the success of Ghostbusters to fall back on, he took up the reins of this pseudo-biopic about the famously wacky journalist and writer Hunter S. Thompson. Some generations might better remember Thompson as being portrayed by Johnny Depp in Terry Gilliam's own pseudo-biopic about him, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas but some time before Bill Murray pretty-much nailed the same role, a role somewhat different from what you would expect from him.
We're in the sixties. Late for yet another deadline, we first find Hunter bustling about in his log cabin, talking to a dummy of then President Richard Nixon and taking pot shots at his telex machine with his revolver. Renowned for his fondness for recreational drugs, it is clear from the outset that this man has not been sober for possibly the entirety of his life. Whether it be sipping cocktails, drinking a pint of straight Scotch, smoking marijuana or deciding between the red or the blue pills, Thompson is always running a cut above the rest, his mind furtively generating seemingly random speech from his mumbling mouth.
What follows is something of a drug-fuelled trip in itself as Hunter and his close friend and attorney, the equally offbeat Lazlo have increasingly bizarre adventures together. After a simple court case turns into a war of attrition, they take to the road and find running guns over the border more interesting than reporting the Super bowl, with both Hunter's editor and the authorities on their tail. Always ready with a witty quip relating to his own skewed view of what exactly is going on around him, he is both resoundingly irritating and thoroughly captivating. Climbing out of hospital windows after drugging nurses, driving whilst using his typewriter or shooting his handgun, Thompson is a moving violation who ought to really be locked up for life, if not in prison then in an asylum. But somehow he manages to escape trouble every step of the way, inadvertently justifying his behaviour through his literary genius.
Those familiar with Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas will instantly recognise Murray as Thompson, not least because of his brown tinted aviator sunglasses and cigarette smoking pipe but also because of the way he speaks - a kind of muffled, drug-fuelled variation on Groucho Marx with just as much libido but twice as much imagination. Despite this, Gilliam's more fantastical interpretation of Thompson is much more entertaining, not just because of the director's vision - which is admittedly better suited to the subject matter - but because it is much more ambiguous. Johnny Depp and Benicio Del Toro basically go on a crazy drug-fuelled road trip but here Bill Murray and Peter Boyle, playing the same two, seem to do the same thing only with more forethought and less mania, making their exploits less excusable and more reckless. Performance-wise, Murray and Boyle nail it, but the story around them just does not work. Ah, I guess it is the best they could do at the time but when all is said and done, at the end of this movie you don't feel like a great deal has happened other than a few strange drug-hazed episodes - and that just wasn't enough for me.
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