(director/writer: Bruce Robinson; screenwriter: based on the novel by Hunter S. Thompson; cinematographer: Dariusz Wolski; editor: Carol Littleton; music: Christopher Young; cast: Johnny Depp (Paul Kemp), Aaron Eckhart (Hal Sanderson), Michael Rispoli (Sala), Amber Heard (Chenault), Richard Jenkins (Lotterman), Giovanni Ribisi (Moburg), Amaury Nolasco (Segurra), Marshall Bell (Donovan), Bill Smitrovich (Mr. Zimburger), Julian Holloway (Wolsley); Runtime: 120; MPAA Rating: R; producers: Graham King/Tim Headington; Film District; 2011)


“Plotless and passionless.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Director Bruce Robinson (“Withnail & I”), himself an alcoholic, in a messy, episodic, plotless and passionless way tells the mildly diverting rum-soaked debauched story of how the heavy drinking Hunter S. Thompson got it together in 1960, in San Juan, Puerto Rico, through a series of fantastic misadventures with evil people and low-lifes to find his writer’s voice and how these sordid events helped turn him into the later acclaimed gonzo journalist. It’s based on Thompson’s semi-autobiographical novel about that wild politically uncertain early period in his life when he only mildly hated Richard Nixon, as it offers a colorful view of the writer’s life which is probably greatly fictionalized. Johnny Depp, a friend and admirer of Thompson and publisher of this book in the 1990s, plays the legendary late author’s (committed suicide in 2005) fictional alter ego Paul Kemp, and plays him with conviction in a low-key, authentic, quirky and pleasantly watchable way.

Kemp, the deadbeat twentysomething American wannabe novelist, lands a half-assed reporter’s gig at the English-language newspaper,The San Juan Star, a second-rate struggling paper interested only in reporting news that reflects favorably on the tropical island.The paper is run by the cynical ranting loony editor Lotterman (Richard Jenkins), who has no love for the newspaper business and realizes the paper is sinking fast due to a strike by the union workers and that the current staff is made up of inferior reporters. Put to work as the horoscope writer and re-write man, Kemp befriends another self-destructive loser in gabby middle-aged photographer Sala (Michael Rispoli) and the roomies team up to take on the world. Before you can say Roberto Clemente, Kemp is lured into selling-out and being the well-paid promotional brochure writer for the ex-journalist, the slick crooked right-wing American real estate developer Sanderson (Aaron Eckhart). Exploiter Sanderson schemes to get filthy rich by partnering with a crooked banker, with a crooked ex-military right-wing buffoonish inside man (Bill Smitrovich) and crooked local businessmen to put luxury hotels on a pristine paradise island of Puerto Rico that was formerly owned by the American government and to staff it with cheaply paid local workers. At first Kemp ignores the nefarious nature of the deal, as he eyes with lust only Sanderson’s sexy trophy girlfriend Chenault (Amber Heard) and can only think of how to get her away from the oily wheeler-dealer.

In the course of time, Kemp attends cockfights with his low-life colleagues, gets busted by the police when on a drunken bender with Sala to an unfriendly local spot, takes in an eye-drop an unnamed hallucinatory drug given him by the paper’s demented boozer religious reporter Moburg (Giovanni Ribisi) and, in the pivotal scene, goes to the Carnival on St. Thomas with Sanderson and watches his future wife Chenault in a heat-driven frenzy of reckless abandon go native on him in a crowded local juke joint. This terrible event is turned into a good thing by the film, as it enables Kemp to be free of Sanderson and to win the heart of the girl who is also given the boot by the Ugly American entrepreneur.

The verdict is that the film is better than I thought it would be: considering it had been put on the shelf for two years and had been subject to such a bad press. But it’s not a film that digs too deeply to get at its bizarre main character: as Kemp’s closing vow to be an honest reporter rings hollow and almost risible, it never allowed me to find for myself the funny or the gifted writer behind Kemp’s boozy idealistic muckraking trip to get even with the bad guys, and that its downbeat mind-fuck drunken tale lacked depth or could it lucidly show if its anti-hero wannabe crusading writer could be more than a hack or did it offer any justification for its unconvincing happy ending.