The problem with hero-worship is summed up by the words hero and worship. Either you worship the hero because he can do no wrong. Or, in the case of Hunter S. Thompson, you worship the hero because he can do no right, his misbehavior itself becoming the thing that gets praised. But either way, the man is a hero, the man is worshipped. What gets lost is the man himself and, more importantly, the work. Ultimately, the worship itself becomes the thing worshipped. Do we remember and revere Thompson for his books (Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, The Great Shark Hunt, Hell’s Angels, Generation of Swine, etc.) or for the writer’s personality, political stance, and hyperbolic style? Do I go too far? Maybe we remember a memorable scene here and there, but it’s the personality that endures. And how long does personality last after the man has left the building?
Johnny Depp, on David Letterman the other night, claimed that Thompson is among the best writers in the country. I don’t think so. I mean, I’m glad the man existed, glad that we had a trouble-maker like Thompson around for a while. He was a great railer. And yes, he created a lively sub-genre of journalism. But he’s not, I think, among the best writers in the country. Of course, Depp is promoting his new movie, The Rum Diary. And he was a friend of Thompson’s. And he does a dead-on impersonation of the man. So maybe we need to cut the man a little slack when it comes to making claims for his late friend’s greatness.
But no slack, I think, for this shambling shaggy-dog of a movie. Paul Kemp—young, alcoholic, and in need of a job—ends up working for a hanging-by-a-thread English language newspaper in Puerto Rico. He’s quickly befriended by the biggest misfits on the staff. Beyond that, and a few epic drinking bouts and the obligatory drug-induced altering of consciousness, not much happens in this movie. Our man in San Juan tries unsuccessfully to get his serious journalism into print. He’s hired in a half-hearted way to write a promotional brochure for a new resort that will despoil some of the local flora and fauna. But these are side-issues. It’s hard to get worked up over the resort scheme when it’s clear the whole country is being paved over and populated with hotels. What’s one more? Why is this particular project worse than all the others? We’re never told.
And anyway, the movie’s not really about Kemp’s struggle over whether to work for The Man. In fact, his biggest struggle seems to be over whether and where he’ll get his next drink. Other issues come up—the plight of the poor, the mercilessness of the rich, the dishonesty of Nixon, etc.—but they’re only mentioned in passing, as indicators that there’s more to Kemp than meets the eye. But no, really, there isn’t. He’s little more than a man in search of a drink, and that makes for a powerfully boring movie. As in the film version of Fear in Loathing in Las Vegas, Depp doesn’t act so much as do a feature-length impression of Hunter S. Thompson. And it wears thin.
In fact, the secondary characters are a good deal more engaging and over-the-top than Depp’s Thompson surrogate. Michael Rispoli, who’s known mostly for his work in television, turns in the most convincing performance, as Sala, the paper’s photographer, a man whose body is too rum-soaked ever to do exactly what his mind instructs it to do. Giovanni Ribisi plays a character who’s almost completely lost in an alcoholic haze. He revels in the role so much that you can almost smell the sour stench coming off his clothes. We’re meant, I think, to see the three characters as three stages in the development of the Thompson persona. The Rum Diary is an origin story, you see—how the man became the myth.
What little plot there is in The Rum Diary is entirely predictable. What will happen when Paul Kemp falls in love with the rich man’s girlfriend? Will he promote the rich man’s paradise after all? Will he ever convince his editor to publish his serious journalism? Don’t hold your breath in waiting for answers to any of these questions. The actors and moviemakers seem to lose interest their own half-hearted attempts at conflict.
I’m wondering how long it’s been since Depp has done any real acting? Surely not in the Pirates franchise or in Alice in Wonderland. In fact, I can’t remember being carried away by one of his performances since Edward Scissorhands, Dead Man, and Benny and Joon. (The Sleeper adds Don Juan DeMarco and What’s Eating Gilbert Grape.) He’s always interesting to watch, but successful actors in middle-age often stop being actors and become icons or preeners. Maybe with Depp, a bit of both?
This week, in addition to The Rum Diary, the biography of the late Steve Jobs also makes its debut. Just this morning I listened to Kurt Anderson interview its author, Walter Isaacson, on Studio 360. Toward the end of Jobs’ life, he turned to Isaacson and said something like “I’m not going to like parts of this book, am I.” Isaacson agreed that he wouldn’t. And that’s the way Jobs wanted it—a book that told the complicated truth about a complicated man. When will we get a story that tells the complicated truth about Hunter S. Thompson? Because The Rum Diary ain’t it.
P.S. The Sleeper enjoyed a long, refreshing snooze. Thank you, Hollywood!