22-year-old Hunter S. Thompson wrote a novel about men in their 30’s working for a Puerto Rican newspaper, equally soaked in the title libation and the brinier flavors of cynicism and failure, but it was not published until more than 30 years later.
Now, it is a movie starring Thompson fan Johnny Depp (who played Thompson in Terry Gilliam’s “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas”). He plays Paul Kemp, a would-be novelist and near-alcoholic who extends his fiction-writing skills to his resume to apply for a job working for a near-broke newspaper in Puerto Rico. He needn’t have amplified his credentials; no one else applied for the job. The exhausted editor (Richard Jenkins) knows he lied but has no other choice and his expectations are even lower than his alternatives. He says all he wants is a writer who won’t drink all the time.
No such luck.
Kemp is most interesting as the reflection of the real-life 22-year-old who was already worried about becoming dissipated, ineffectual, and hopeless. His passionate love of language is palpable. He spins out an elaborate sentence with the exuberance of youthful excess but lands it with breathtaking precision that demonstrates he is already a master. The plot is simple. Kemp is frustrated that the paper will only publish pieces that make the advertisers happy, which means nothing critical of anyone or anything in Puerto Rico. He briefly agrees to moonlight as a writer for a shady real estate development coordinated by Sanderson (Aaron Eckhart), who has a beautiful home and a beautiful girlfriend (the very lovely Amber Heard). And he briefly stops drinking.
There’s an endearing sweetness to the film. The unabashed affection Depp and writer/director Bruce Robinson have for Thompson is contagious as we see Kemp begin to find himself as a writer even as he perhaps begins to lose himself in the gorgeous excess of his appetites. The book is a novel, but the movie concludes by merging the fictional Kemp with the real-life Thompson with a buoyant couple of lines about what happens next.
In one scene Sanderson’s girlfriend and Kemp are driving in a borrowed convertible and she dares him to drive faster: “I’ll bet you scream before I do.” He floors it and they surge ahead, both reckless, ravenous for adventure, seeking the ultimate, no matter the cost. They both scream, and screech to a halt inches from the end of a pier. Knowing what lay ahead for Thompson, it feels good to see a moment when he knew where to stop.
Parents should know that this film has constant very strong language and substance abuse including alcohol and one use of hallucinogenic narcotics, a brief explicit sexual situation with female nudity, and various bad behavior including stealing.
Family discussion: Why wouldn’t Lotterman publish stories that were unflattering to local businesses? Who are the thieves in this story? Who are the heroes?