(2011) Drama (FilmDistrict) Johnny Depp, Aaron Eckhart, Amber Heard, Michael Rispoli, Richard Jenkins, Giovanni Ribisi, Marshall Bell, Amaury Nolasco, Bill Smitrovich, Karen Austin, Julian Holloway, Bruno Irizarry, Enzo Cilenti. Directed by Bruce Robinson
Hunter S. Thompson remains an iconic figure; not only in the counterculture but also within journalism and I guess among those who admire American eccentrics. One of his close friends was actor Johnny Depp, who famously portrayed the author in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and helped get this novel, based on Thompson’s experiences in San Juan, Puerto Rico in the early 60s, published.
Now Depp has gotten the movie made. He plays Thompson surrogate Paul Kemp, a boozehound journalist who has seen the bright lights and big city of New York but has been exiled to the San Juan Star, an English language newspaper that is on its last legs, edited by Lotterman (Jenkins), a harried frazzled man who is watching his empire crumble around him.
Kemp hooks up with Sala (Rispoli), a once-competent photographer who has fallen into a booze-induced haze of rum and cockfights while he waits to collect the severance pay that is sure to come when the Star folds. The two wind up sharing a room with the mercurial Moberg (Ribisi), whose brain has been filleted by drug use and alcohol abuse. He’s been fired from the Star but still hangs out around the newspaper, avoiding Lotterman and waiting for his paycheck.
Kemp is approached by Sanderson (Eckhart), a shady businessman who brokers quasi-legal land deals that enrich the pockets of his American friends but not so much the people of Puerto Rico. Sanderson’s girlfriend Chenault (Heard) takes a shine to Kemp but the combination of rum, debauchery and intrigue prove to be a more alluring combination in many ways.
Robinson made his reputation as a director with Withnail and I, an account of an alcoholic from the point of view of his friend. After the best-left-forgotten Jennifer 8 he has been absent from the director’s chair for 20 years. This isn’t, sadly, an auspicious return to the form of the former; thankfully it isn’t a project sunk to the depths of the latter either.
Much of the movie’s high points – and low ones – come from Depp. Nobody can play drunk like Depp can and although Rispoli and Ribisi do their best (and it’s pretty good) it’s Depp’s show without a doubt. Although he’s pushing 50 and is playing a man who has to be about half that age, he still makes Kemp a believable journalistic Quixote, tilting at the windmills of corruption and arrogance with Rispoli an effective Sancho Panza.
The chemistry between Depp and Heard is a little dicey. Heard is a very good actress but she’s playing a gold-digger who, it seems to me, would be more attracted to the size of a wallet rather than to the kindness of a heart. Why Chenault falls for Kemp is a complete mystery and doesn’t seem to fit with the girl’s character and Heard isn’t able to really offer an explanation either.
The movie is paced like a long languorous Caribbean afternoon, passing in a haze of rum, heat and thunderstorms. It doesn’t have the kind of edginess you’d expect with something that Thompson wrote and it might well be best seen after having quaffed a glass of 400 proof rum. No such thing? Oh, I beg to differ my friends…
REASONS TO GO: Nobody does drunk like Depp.
REASONS TO STAY: Kind of stodgy for a Hunter S. Thompson adaptation.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of foul language, enough drinking to drown the Antarctic in rum and a bit of drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Robinson, who also wrote the screenplay, had been sober for six years before taking on this project. He was hit by a severe case of writer’s block and began drinking, a bottle a day, until the script was completed. He continued to drink during production and quit drinking immediately afterwards.
HOME OR THEATER: While the look of a squalid Puerto Rico is sometimes offset by the gorgeous vistas of beach and jungle, the movie works as well at home as it does in the theater.
FINAL RATING: 5/10
TOMORROW: The Dead Girl