Movie: Where the Buffalo Roam (1980)
Method: Netflix DVD
Why Did I watch this?
I forget what got me into Hunter S. Thompson. It was either Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998) or Hunter Gathers from The Venture Bros. But I great an appreciation for his world-bending gonzo journalism, as any teenage boy who wants to strike out against the establishment does. I wouldn't say I was like a diehard, consume every bit of writing he ever did, but I thought Fear and Loathing was funny and I appreciate the hippie-adjacent culture of subversive truth and drug use.
I had heard about Where the Buffalo Roam years ago, probably from Wikipedia scrolling of both Thompson and Bill Murray ephemera. It always stuck out to me - like how was there this movie of early Bill Murray playing Hunter S. Thompson just sitting there with no cultural appreciation? It's been on my radar for a long, long time (I need to start logging when I put these movies in my Netflix Queue. It's probably been 10-11 years), and I really wanted to pull the trigger on this.
What Did I know ahead of time?
Pretty much exactly what I mentioned above. 1980 Bill Murray, released three months ahead of Caddyshack (1980), during his last spring at SNL. He had been in Meatballs (1979) the year prior, but this is just a forgotten gap in his early resume. But I knew Bill Murray played Hunter S. Thompson, that they were friends and his performance was heavily praised at the time.
How Was It?
This is not a good movie. But it's so close to being a good movie. All the elements are there, but it's missing some thing. It's hard to place your finger on it, although quite frankly, it's missing the element that made Thompson's writing so memorable sixty years later (seriously, the list of 1960s and 70s magazine journalists we're still talking about today is very short). It's missing energy, it's missing pizzazz, it's missing GONZO!
This movie feels as if it they thought they could just shoot Bill Murray on screen for 99 minutes and that would be enough. It almost felt reminiscent of 1941 (1979) where the thought seemed like just having John Belushi would be enough, but there's no material to work with. And to be fair, Murray does carry this movie. But it's amazing that even though he's trying, this doesn't feel like a Ghostbusters (1984), a STRIPES (1981), or even a Meatballs. It feels so flat.
This kind of thing drives me nuts, so let's get into it. It really comes down to the direction. The screenplay doesn't have a great drive to it - it's ostensibly about Thompson and his relationship to Carl Lazlo (Dr. Gonzo in Fear and Loathing, Oscar Acosta in real life). Supposedly this screenplay grew out of an attempt to capture Acosta's life, and you can tell that here. The film is split into three big chunks - the first is a courtroom drama of Lazlo attempting to defend some young hippies, Thompson covering the 1972 Super Bowl where Lazlo distracts him and sells guns to revolutionaries, and then Thompson on the Nixon campaign trail where Lazlo again comes and distracts him, getting him kicked off the plane.
The first segment relegates Thompson to a supporting character role. Peter Boyle plays Lazlo with great effect, and it's really compelling court stuff that reminded me of The Trial of the Chicago 7 (2020), but again, it had no spirit, no energy. Scenes linger either too long or two short, there's no comedic timing of the cuts, blocking, or line delivery, and at its heart, it doesn't really know what it wants to be. Is it a comedy, a dark comedy, a dramedy, a drama? Who knows. It can never quite pin itself down. Murray parading around with his bloody Marys that he eventually gets all the law students to drink is genuinely amusing, but he also just isn't much of a factor here.
From there their relationship begins to fray, as Lazlo starts running guns, which pushes Thompson over the edge. He maintains his aloofness, but that doesn't gel with the actual tension in the scene where Lazlo and a bunch of Mexicans are trying to escape from a shady airport from the police in a helicopter above them. Immediately preceding this is the closest we get to the more familiar Thompson legend, his insane hotel escapades all on Rolling Stone's dime, and the bit where he trades his Super Bowl VI Tickets and press pass for a bottle of wine and a hat is inspired.
But it's just all over the place. We are essentially looking at their relationship at three different points in time, and there is an arc there, but it's not developed. The final segment may be the best in this movie, where Thompson is on the campaign trail of "the Candidate" (Richard M. Dixon) and ends up drugging and swapping places with a more respectable reporter from the Washington Post to get on Nixon's plane. He then runs into the big dude himself, where the gag I guess is that he has painful urination? Lazlo shows up and starts ranting about buying land in Mexico where they can do anything. Thompson says that's stupid, and then the movie just sort of ends.
It's disjointed in focus, but there is a throughline there in the degradation of their relationship. But is this what anyone wants in a Hunter S. Thompson movie? It seems bizarre to stick it with a plot at all. Reading more about the production seems very troubled and doomed from the start. I wanted to like this, but I think there's a reason Fear and Loathing remains the definitive take on this dude.
Murray as Thompson is cool, though. It's a perfect marriage of two cool dudes whose personas were largely based on being tricksters who didn't give a fuck about anyone else. I think it's easy to say that ends up being problematic in today's society. Like, we would definitely have people on Twitter saying that you should treat hotel staff better. But it's also what makes them really cool. And Thompson, at least in this movie always seems to rope the unwilling staff into his shenanigans and eventually has a fun time. But really, the idea of not giving a shit about anyone is so liberating, isn't it?
I was also intrigued watching this film as ideas and concepts bubbled in my brain - in the 60s and 70s the idea of subversive going against the grain anarchy was a thoroughly leftist affair. It's the classic slobs vs. snobs mentality that Murray built his career around. It was always these hippies or hippy descendants who would rile up the stodgy old establishment. This is still a great mine for comedy. But in modern times, it feels like the right are the mavericks, not caring about anyone else, and riling up the precious PC-obsessed left. It's bizarre to me that this switched and to me it's just a gaslighting fallacy, since conservatives do in fact want the stodgy old order to remain, like that's the whole point. It's disruptive in a way that caters to a specific group of people instead of acceptance of all. But liberals are painted as the stuffy ones who can't take a joke. And that might largely be true. It's a fascinating development. Why can't we just laugh at rich people getting sprayed with a fire extinguisher anymore? I dunno, maybe I'm part of the problem, my thought during that was also that there were plenty of respected journalists who had done nothing wrong except not be weird. Also there is some problematic unconsensual drugging in this film. I'm definitely getting old, when the old guy from the Post was clearly annoyed at people playing football on an airplane my thought was just "that's so reasonable, he's just trying to do his job!" Is there a line between cultural subversion and just being a dick? Probably.
Anyway, this movie was kind of fun, but largely deserves its forgotten reputation. It remains an intriguing little bit of what could have been, but for the full Hunter S. Thompson experience, probably just reading his collected works or watching Fear and Loathing is the way to go.