Who’s ready to spend four hours with Johnny Depp as a substance-abusing, raving goofball?
No, it’s not another Pirates sequel, but a double-feature of adaptations of semi-autobiographical novels by the late, sometimes great, frequently soused, often reckless, original “gonzo” journalist and author, Hunter S. Thompson: Terry Gilliam’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998), and Bruce Robinson’s Rum Diary.
Thompson, for those unfamiliar, is as colorful a character as he was a writer. His distinctive speaking style (best described as a staccato mutter), eccentric wardrobe (a penchant for Hawaiian shirts, dark sunglasses, and cigarette holders) and near-constant state of inebriation make him irresistible for an actor, or in my case, every few years or so, for someone desperately in need of a Halloween costume. Garry Trudeau’s comic strip version of him, Uncle Duke, is probably the most beloved character in the long history of “Doonesbury,” and Bill Murray took a crack at him in the best-forgotten Where the Buffalo Roam (1980), but it is Depp’s star power and determination that finally managed to get Thompson’s most famous, beloved, and arguably best work, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (first published in 1972) to the screen after years in development hell
The resulting film was a box office bomb, but it has apparently enjoyed enough cult success that Depp was allowed to return to the well with Rum Diary, based on a novel that Thompson wrote before Fear and Loathing but didn’t get published until 1998. So while the two films aren’t technically connected, Rum Diary is a sort of prequel in spirit, set a decade before Loathing, and if you’re wondering how Depp managed to pull off playing a 10-years-younger version of essentially the same character he played 12 years ago, well, such is the wonder of Depp.
But let’s see if he’s still got those youthful pretty-boy, 21 Jump Street looks after a maniacally drug-fueled, totally gonzo Smackdown…
If we think of Hunter Thompson as a superhero (to be clear: We don’t), Rum Diary is his origin story. It’s a ramshackle chronicle of his early years as a reporter for a dingy newspaper in Puerto Rico in the early ’60s. The fictional Thompson alter ego is named Paul Kemp, and other than the boozing habit and the hangover-hiding dark shades, he hasn’t quite found his character yet, nor his unique journalistic voice (as he puts it, “I don’t know how to write like me”).
He is befriended by two veteran grizzled hedonists, a photographer and a reporter, played respectively by the always welcome Michael Rispoli (Kick-Ass) and Giovanni Ribisi (Avatar). The nominal villain shows up in the form of wealthy land developer Aaron Eckhart, who seeks Kemp’s press support for his upcoming hotel deal and has quite a Faustian bargain to offer in the form of his luscious girlfriend Chenault, played by Amber Heard (TV’s short-lived The Playboy Club). Will young Thompson make the right choice, nail “the bastards” in print, find his inner Gonzo, and evolve into the self-destructive mess we all know and may or may not love today?
The Defending Champion
“We had two bags of grass, 75 pellets of mescaline, five sheets of high-powered blotter acid, a saltshaker half-full of cocaine…” Yeah, yeah, yeah, you know the story. It’s 1971, and chronically intoxicated reporter Raoul Duke heads out to Las Vegas, ostensibly to cover a race, but also to search for the American Dream, with his even more deranged drug buddy/attorney Dr. Gonzo (Benicio Del Toro, plumped up, mustachioed, and valiantly giving it his all) by his side, frequently threatening his life.
The two experiment with a variety of drugs, turn rabidly paranoid, suffer frequent and surreal hallucinations, run into a series of pointless cameos (among them: Michael Jeter, Cameron Diaz, Ellen Barkin, Christina Ricci and Gary Busey) and cause general havoc everywhere they go. If the movie’s goal is to re-create the sensation of being trapped on a weekend bender with two zonked-out drug fiends, it succeeds admirably.
If Rum Diary sounds more conventional Hollywood than Thompsonesque, rest assured there is also a trippy drug sequence, scads of boozing, and the occasional, unmistakable HST cadence in the dialogue (“Your tongue is like an accusatory giblet!”). No, there’s nothing groundbreaking in it, but it’s fun in parts. Depp and his fellow character actors are highly watchable, and Heard even more so, but it’s hard to imagine the project ever getting made if not for its notorious author and the star/producer’s obsession with him. Writer/director Robinson, making his first film in 19 years (remember Jennifer Eight? No, you don’t. Stop lying), traveled similar “hedonistic buddies” territory previously with his offbeat debut, the British cult classic Withnail & I (1987), but he doesn’t manage to make lightning strike twice with this rather pedestrian material. He evokes the time and place well, ably capturing the sweaty grunginess of San Juan circa 1960, but the plot never really takes hold and fails to lead anywhere, unless you consider a cockfight “anywhere.”
Rum Diary may not be much of a movie, but Fear and Loathing is far too much of a movie, a relentless assault on the senses that somehow manages to be simultaneously exhausting and profoundly boring. It has, I gather, developed something of a cult following over the years, but honestly, I have yet to meet anyone who actually likes it. But assuming they exist, it’s a tribute to the book, in the sense that apparently, there are people who love it so much that they even enjoy watching this miserable movie made from it.
While the book is much-beloved, very little actually happens in it outside of its narrator’s mind. What it lacks in plot, it makes up for with Thompson’s savagely witty and occasionally insightful prose. The screenplay wisely includes a fair amount of choice excerpts directly from the book, skillfully read by Depp, but director Gilliam (one of the script’s four credited writers) has no idea beyond that how to make the material work as a film. Like most of his post-Brazil work, Gilliam directs with a monstrously heavy hand, going so totally batshit with garish production design, wacky camera angles and special effects that he forgets to develop characters, tell a story, or be remotely funny. Who knew that a former Monty Python member could have such a tin ear for comedy? Isn’t it common sense, for example, that Duke’s freaking out in a hotel lobby from the giant lizards he imagines seeing around him is only going to play funny if we also get a neutral look at the actual scene? But apparently, Gilliam can’t be bothered to shoot a scene straight; he never met a fisheye lens he didn’t like.
What little fun the movie offers comes almost entirely from Depp, who fully embodies this exaggerated, borderline cartoon version of Thompson in all of his non-glory. He looks, moves and sounds the part to a tee, and the character is such an oddball, one-of-a-kind creation that he instantly grabs your attention, but once the initial novelty has worn off — after about five minutes or so, by my watch — you’re left with nothing. No coherent story, no stakes, no memorable dialogue beyond the narration, and no discernible point beyond “Hard drugs are dangerous and turn you into a paranoid loon, but anyone who disapproves of them is a square.” Or something. Early on, they pick up a dorky, long-haired hitchhiker (played, for no reason at all, by Tobey Maguire) who, terrified by their drug-fueled rantings, flees them at first opportunity. By the end, we’re overwhelmed with envy for him for so wisely escaping this tedious, endless wreck.
Oh Lord, do I really have to choose?
It’s a no-brainer in the sense that if forced to watch Fear and Loathing ever again, I’d probably take Thompson’s way out.
It’s kind of a shame to award victory to such a bland, forgettable non-entity as The Rum Diary, but there ain’t no draws in Smackdown, so here we are. But if you’re really jonesing for some Hunter, or for an inebriated buddy comedy, do yourself a favor and rent a double-feature of Alex Gibney’s excellent documentary Gonzo and Robinson’s enjoyably off-kilter Withnail & I.
And if that’s not enough for you, try seventy-five pellets of mescaline, five sheets of high-power blotter acid…