★ ★ ★ 1/2
This film had an interesting spin for me. When I first heard about it, it became one of my most anticipated movies of the year because of the source material (the book of the same name by legendary Gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson) and the writer/director Bruce Robinson (director of Withnail and I and his first feature film in nearly 20 years). However, once the film was released, the critics didn’t necessarily pan it out right, but the reviews were admittedly lackluster. So, because of this, I put off seeing this movie and, rather than having too high expectations as originally was the case, I lowered my expectations greatly and went into the film planning on being completely let down. After viewing, I can see how some people wouldn’t enjoy the movie, but for me, it still hit a chord in much the same way Withnail and I did for me. Honestly, I had a hard time deciding whether this should be rated a three and a half star or four star film, I guess for me it’s somewhere in the middle.
Johnny Depp plays aspiring novelist and American freelance journalist Paul Kemp, a character who himself is an alter ego of author Hunter S. Thompson. On assignment, he starts a job at the San Juan Star in Puerto Rico in the early 1960s writing horoscopes and other pointless articles for tourists under the discretion of editor Lotterman (Richard Jenkins), during a turbulent time in the country’s history, where island natives and the touristy expatriates from America are at bitter ends. Kemp takes up eventual residence with the paper photographer, Sala (Michael Rispoli), and the two carry out many nights of drunken amusement, along with complete alcoholic Moberg (Giovanni Ribisi), while in the day concerned with the changing culture on the island. In addition, during his time on the island, Kemp becomes reluctantly involved with a plan to foster a military bombing island into a hotel/resort attraction with the insistence of self-proclaimed PR guru Sanderson (Aaron Eckhart), whose girlfriend Chenault (Amber Heard), becomes an infatuation during his tenure.
What struck me about this film was two things: 1) the camaraderie of being in constant limbo in a Catch-22 situation where alcohol and drugs seems your only escape to “normalcy” and 2) the analysis of Puerto Rico during this turbulent time in the country’s history. I related and found interest in the first bullet point in much the same way I did in watching Withnail and I, in that, I have had a period of my life that felt very much like that. A period of constant intoxication in need of normalcy, while striving to find a creative voice in the chaos that is our world. To me, I think every young artist has this period and, I won’t hesitate to say, I would likely still be in this period had I been able to continue to pursue the dreams of my youth. Not that I have given up on my goals, but I have had to suck it up and get a “real” job and become a bit more of a cog in society, as opposed to the meandering drink laden writer/filmmaker/musician that is more in character with my genetic makeup. The second point is what really encompasses the story of this film; without it, the whole movie would just be one long binge, and that doesn’t work as a story. However, I can see how some would find the essence of Puerto Rico at this time to not really be of interest; yet, for me, it kept my attention throughout.
I’ve not read the novel, so I can’t compare the book to the movie. Speaking on the film’s merits alone, however, I think this presents an accurate vision of what life for a personality such as Kemp’s was and would react in this particular setting and time period. Though it’s not for everyone, it worked for me.