Johnny Depp might be one of our greatest living American actors, but there’s a dirty little secret about the guy that’s absolutely impossible to ignore: He’s an utterly forgettable straight man. Give him a crazy countenance, a penchant for wild drug debasement (and/or a dreadlocked beard and heavy eye mascara) and he’s riveting; give him any kind of everyman role and he shrinks into the background like a dust mote. Worse, you can feel him pretend to be average, which is a thoroughly painful experience.
It certainly doesn’t help that writer/director Bruce Robinson’s film asks Depp to recreate a much watered down version of a fantastically conceived character from one of his all-time best roles. His eerily on-the-mark performance as Hunter S. Thompson in Terry Gilliam’s brilliant Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, helped catapult Depp into rarefied heights as a fearless Hollywood actor, which, in turn gave him access to all the Pirates movies and the unspeakable wealth therein.
This film, based on a novel Thompson wrote in the early ’60s and spent years fruitlessly trying to publish until 1998, has as its protagonist a young journalist named Paul Kemp (Depp), just arrived in Puerto Rico to start writing for the San Juan Star, a sinking-fast paper staffed by freaks, deadbeats and alcoholics, including a rough-hewn photographer, Sala (Michael Rispoli), and an utterly wacked out writer known only as Moburg (Giovanni Ribisi, channeling a later incarnation of the Gonzo character), who listens to Hitler’s recorded speeches and dispenses pharmaceutical acid with an eye-dropper. In short order, Kemp drinks to distraction, falls in love with a beautiful blonde (Amber Heard) — the girlfriend of a slick capitalist swine developer (Aaron Eckhart), who has designs on building a series of hotels on a previously untouched island — and runs afoul of the law and the locals in various measures.
Robinson, who, in 1987, helmed Withnail & I, one of the better films about the absorbing nature of alcoholism ever shot, would seem to have been an inspired choice to adapt Thompson’s wry prose, but, like Mr. Depp’s performance, it remains a disappointment. In Depp’s case, you can see the ease with which he can play Mr. Thompson’s more maniacal elements — when Paul is drunk and carousing, or brutally hungover, his performance begins to take off — but in any scene where a sober Paul has to address the drastically unfair and corrupt political system on the island or speak in quaint bromides about journalistic integrity, he’s forced to downshift awkwardly, as if a turbo-charged sports sedan suddenly gets replaced with a 4-cylander jalopy. Similarly, the film seems a bit lost in tone and voice, a hilarious scene involving Paul and Sala’s attempt to drive his miniature, juryrigged car gets cut against scenes of Paul realizing just how impoverished many of the native people are and looking balefully at the well-maintained marinas of the wealthy Americans who’ve invaded the joint.
In a sense, the film is meant to serve as a kind of heroic origin story for one of the more interesting writers of the 20th century; instead, it’s a sputtering mishmash of drunken chaos and unwelcome sincerity and that never settles into a satisfying brew.
Piers Marchant is a Philly-based writer and editor, and the EIC (and film critic) for two.one.five magazine (215mag.com). His reviews can be found on 215mag.com and his tumblr blog, Sweet Smell of Success. You can also follow him on twitter @kafkaesque83.
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