On one hand, it’s impossible not to be touched by Johnny Depp’s devotion to Hunter S. Thompson. The two became friends around the time the actor starred in Terry Gilliam’s 1998 adaptation of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and the legendary journalist’s 2005 suicide has done nothing to slow Depp’s steady output of Thompson-related projects.
He personally organized and financed the firing of the author’s ashes from a giant cannon Thompson designed for his funeral. He narrated Alex Gibney’s fine 2008 documentary Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson. He uncovered the manuscript for The Rum Diary among papers in his friend’s Woody Creek cabin and was instrumental in getting it published and made into a movie.
On the other hand, it’s impossible not to be struck by just how flawed and forgettable both of these film adaptations are. If ever there was a writer whose work was meant for the page and not the screen, it was Hunter Thompson. Initially, I was surprised to learn that this picture was produced three years ago only to be shelved. And then I watched it.
Written when the author was in his twenties, the novel offers the autobiographical story of a struggling young journalist named Paul Kemp. After being fired from a number of jobs in the States, he decides to try his luck at the San Juan Star, a rundown English-language newspaper in Puerto Rico. Depp plays Thompson’s alter ego as an idealist in the very early, barely embryonic stages of gonzo.
Like almost everyone we meet, he drinks like he’s being paid by the shot glass despite assuring his editor (Richard Jenkins) during the interview process that his consumption ranks at “the high end of social.” He has yet to find his voice and mission as a writer, however, and has not yet discovered the pleasure of firearms, so writer-director Bruce Robinson (Withnail and I) finds himself in the unenviable position of attempting to entertain Hunter Thompson fans with a character who has not yet become Hunter Thompson.
His solution is a never quite satisfying mix of period recreation (think Mad Men on Spring Break), barcrawl comedy, social commentary and romance. The last two elements are combined in a subplot in which a shady land developer (Aaron Eckhart) recruits Kemp to write promotional copy for him as he transforms the tropical paradise into a tacky tourist trap.
Kemp is less interested in the guy’s business interests than he is in his love interest. “Oh God, why did she have to happen?” Depp mumbles the first time he sets eyes on Amber Heard, playing the glamorous blonde trophy he falls for but does relatively little to win over for himself in just one of several story lines Robinson develops only to leave dangling.
Even the picture’s climax is anticlimactic. Not to mention borderline embarrassing. You have to bear in mind that, in adapting the book, the filmmaker was authorized to make tweaks and add touches in an effort to increase the movie’s appeal to a new generation of Thompson enthusiasts.
One of these consists of a scene in the film’s final moments in which Kemp suddenly and melodramatically plunks himself down at a newsroom typewriter and pounds out this weird cross between a manifesto and a declaration of war. He warns the bastards of the world that he is not on their side and intends to make it his life’s mission to keep them in his journalistic cross hairs while providing a voice of outrage for disempowered readers. It’s like something out of a superhero origin story. It is not something its subject would have found amusing.
The bottom line: While it’s a noble and rare thing for a Hollywood star to champion great literature, Depp would probably at this point be doing his late friend a favor by getting back to swashbuckling and letting Hunter Thompson’s twisted, timeless work speak for itself.