Art Linson makes the peculiar choice to recast Oscar Zeta Acosta as a balding, pudgy Peter Boyle in this, his adaptation of Thompson’s eulogy for the Brown Buffalo, Where The Buffalo Roam. And, I have to ask, now that that context has been removed, what does the title mean?
Where Gilliam’s Fear and Loathing captured the free-wheeling narrative of Thompson’s novel, this film feels a lot like one of Thompson’s extended shorter pieces, from The Great Shark Hunt. It’s essentially a series of ostensibly unconnected vignettes centered around Murray’s Thompson and his relationship to Carl Lazlo, this film’s iteration of Oscar Acosta, through Thompson’s rise to notoriety. There’s no real plot to speak of, and it’s mostly a collection of singular moments strung together by Murray’s narration – which was written by Thompson, it sounds like – with the link between all three being the out-of-nowhere appearance of Boyle’s Lazlo as he becomes more and more of an outlaw.
This film, like a lot of those early-eighties Universal comedies, seems to forget that the camera is an element, a lot of the time. It’s just point and shoot, with no real regard for even basic composition. Coupled with this, the film has that weird, almost too-bright look that a lot of these kinds of films did, around that time, as if they’d forgotten how to light a scene – foreheads shine with an unnatural sheen. Other characters just kind of amble drunkenly around Thompson and Lazlo, with nothing substantial to do or say. And, a lot of this – I think – comes from the fact that Linson’s only real experience as a director beforehand was a three-month crash course he’d taken just prior to shooting at the heed of the studio. He was a director-for-hire, which would be fine if he knew how to direct, but he doesn’t, and that certainly shows. He only directed one film after this, 1984’s The Wild Life, and then became a producer – and proud we are of all of them, and so on.
No, the crux of this film is Thompson’s relationship to Lazlo, and – while it doesn’t really bare any resemblance to it’s flesh-and-blood counterpart – that’s really what drives the film, until its last third, where it feels as if the filmmakers suddenly remembered that there was actually a narrative thread that needed resolution. This aspect is highlighted particularly in a scene just beforehand, where Murray’s Thompson gives an impromptu eulogy for Lazlo, which is ripped right out of Thompson’s “The Banshee Screams For Buffalo Meat.” Here, and nowhere else, does Linson’s lack of creativity behind the camera work for the film – all that’s required is a slow push-in on Murray’s face.
Murray’s resemblance to Thompson is uncanny, if the hairline and facial structure can be ignored – an ambling, careening mumbler in a sun-hat, who comes prepared with his grapefruit. His performance, like Depp’s, came out of spending months living with Thompson, and studying his movements. And, being tied to a chair and thrown in his pool. It worked almost too well, and when it came time for Murray to return to SNL, he found it impossible to shake the character. And, it was Murray’s performance that Thompson found as the only redeeming value of the film –
“Murray did a good job. But it was a bad script. You can’t beat a bad script. It was just a horrible movie. A cartoon. But Bill Murray did a good job. We actually wrote and shot several different endings and beginnings and they all got cut out in the end. It was disappointing. Not to mention that I have to live with it. It’s like go into a bar somewhere and people start to giggle and you don’t know why, and they’re all watching that fucking movie.”
The ending they did end up using doesn’t really amount to anything. Given the nature of Thompson’s friendship with Acosta, and the circumstances surrounding his assumed demise, the filmmakers were stuck with having to create a final cap-off to their relationship – and, it doesn’t really offer anything that the previous section’s end didn’t. The two are interchangeable. And there’s nothing to really differentiate it, par for Thompson telling Lazlo that he’s “not coming!” to his utopia. Which – doesn’t really mean anything, as he’s said that before, and there’s not really any resolution, here – I mean, what led to this decision? What makes him less willing to go along with Lazlo, this time?
What’s interesting is that – before comic book movies, or any of that – here, we have a movie filled with shout-outs to it’s main character’s fanbase. Watching this film and knowing Thompson just a little amounts to going, ‘hey, there’s the Red Shark! Hey, there’s the hitchhiker character from Fear & Loathing! And, this whole end segment on the Zoo plane is from On The Campaign Trail – I think,’ every five minutes or so. Our first introduction to Thompson finds a hospital orderly telling another, ‘he was complaining that his car was attacked – by giant bats.’ And, everybody with a copy of Fear & Loathing on their book or DVD shelf gives a little smile.
Probably one of the better scenes in the film is the fictional confrontation the film imagines between Thompson and Nixon – throughout his career, Thompson saw Nixon as the barrel bottom of America’s presidential legacy. In the obituary he’d written for him for Rolling Stone, he described him as “the real thing–a political monster straight out of Grendel and a very dangerous enemy. … If the right people had been in charge of Nixon’s funeral, his casket would have been launched into one of those open-sewage canals that empty into the ocean just south of Los Angeles. He was a swine of a man and a jabbering dupe of a president.” The two had only come face to face once, and that only resulting in a brief discussion of football. But, here – the film gives Murray’s Thompson the opportunity to say all that we imagine Thompson would’ve said, had he been given the chance, and it’s a monologue that works primarily because of Murray –
“I’ve heard their rallies, they like Julie but Tricia… and they really hate you sir. You know that one and a half of the State Senate of Utah are screwheads. You know I was never really frightened by the bopheads and the potheads with their silliness never really frightened me either, but these goddam screwheads, they terrify me. And the poor doomed, the young, and the silly, the honest, the weak, the Italians… they’re doomed, they’re lost, they’re helpless, they’re somebody else’s meal, they’re like pigs in the wilderness.”
“Fuck the doomed.”