Panned at Cannes, flopped in the USA, re-re-rewritten scripts, sacked directors, disgruntled author threatening to disrupt publicity... So, how is it?
The good news? It's not bad. The bad news? It's not good. The problems, predictably, lie in Gilliam's ambitious rendering of such unwieldy material. In the book, the streamlined sneer of Thompson's prose takes on a character of its own and the antics act as a fictionalised framework for the grim hope at the centre. Here, Gilliam slaps on stock footage ('Nam, Nixon, street protests) before jarring us back to the stumblings and vomitings.
Apart from one brief philosophical respite, there's little sense of either Thompson's intelligence or Gilliam's maverick vision. It's the joy of text versus big-screen brashness and, with some books, no amount of generously budgeted technical panache can gouge out the subtlety.
But, in the right mood (and, perhaps, with a head full of the right substance), it works just fine. Gilliam tries hard to drop us right into Duke's frazzled brain, with ominous lighting, cut-and-paste camera lurches and (occasionally cheesy) CG hallucinations. The music, which sees the Stones mixed with Burt Bacharach, is also immaculately twisted.
Depp is excellent, Del Toro even better, and the set-pieces (like White Rabbit Bathtime Mescaline Psychosis) capture the original's sense of hedonistic, close-to-the-edge menace. But it's still hard to shake the feeling that such extreme imagery is more effective when left to the imagination.