Wine is a mocker, strong drink a brawler,
and whoever is led astray by it is not wise.
Speak out for those who cannot speak, for the rights of all the destitute.
Speak out, judge righteously, defend the rights of the poor and needy.
Director/writer Bruce Robinson adaptation of Hunter S. Thompson’s semi-autobiographical novel starts out strong, but seems to fizzle out at the end, the actual conclusion being spelled out in one of those what happened later summaries scrolling up the screen. From what I have read Johnny Depp, who plays Thompson’s stand-in, journalist Paul Kemp, was a close friend of the novelist. He discovered the unfinished manuscript while visiting him at his Colorado home years ago, but it wasn’t until the early 90s that Hunter finished and published the work.
The story begins with Kemp trying to wake up in his trashed San Juan hotel room after a night of boozing. When he shows up at the San Juan Star’s office where he is applying for a job, the jaded editor Lotterman (Richard Jenkins) knows full well that Kemp’s sunglasses are intended to cover up his red eyes. Knowing also that the young Kemp’s resume is heavily inflated, he asks about his drinking. The reply is also b.s, that it’s at “the upper end of social.” Lotterman accepts him anyway in the belief that the would-be novelist writes well enough so that he might draw some new readers and thus prevent the newspaper from folding.
Assigned to interview American tourists at bowling alleys, Kemp soon becomes aware of the gulf between the impoverished native Puerto Ricans and the American tourists who boast that they never leave their hotel, casino or beach. Because he consumes so many of the small but costly liquor bottles at the hotel, Lotterman ends his hotel stay. Kemp then accepts the offer of his fellow reporter Sala (Michael Rispoli) to rent a room at his apartment. There is even a television set, the pudgy reporter promises. Turns out that the TV set is in the living room of their neighbors, and that they must use binoculars to see it through the open windows. Later as they watch Nixon speak we see Kemp’s (Hunter’s) anti-establishment bent come to the fore, the reporter casting aspersions onto the politician and predicting that he would not win the Presidency.
The apartment has also two other occupants—a fighting rooster and Moburg (Giovanni Ribisi), a grubby reporter covering crime and religion, Kemp had seen him being verbally assaulted by the angry Lotterman earlier at the office when the reporter made one of his apparently rare appearances. Moburg, who enjoys listening to old records of Hitler’s speeches, is spaced out by both the awful hooch that he makes with an a converted room air conditioner, and also with various drugs.
Kemp is not in town very long before he is approached by the slick talking entrepreneur Sanderson (Aaron Eckhart). The latter is gathering a team of investors to acquire an uninhabited island currently used for gunnery practice by the Navy. He wants to build a resort hotel there, the first of several. He invites Kemp to join him as the writer who through articles and brochures can make the project appealing to the public. Kemp is drawn in, partly for the money, but also because Sanderson’s beautiful girlfriend Chenault (Amber Heard). However, as he observes the corrupt businessman mistreating the native Puerto Ricans, Kemp begins to come to himself. (Late one night Sanderson’s mistreatment almost leads to Kemp and Sala being beaten up by a group of angry peasants.)
Kemp tries to get his boss interested in an article decrying the mistreatment of Puerto Ricans by businessmen like Sanderson, who see them only as a source for cheap labor at their luxury establishments. In this respect I was reminded of Peter Weir’s The Year of Living Dangerously in which the Eurasian photographer Billy Kwan challenges the ambitious journalist Guy Hamilton to write about the poor people of Jakarta. Both Lotterman and Hamilton decline, claiming that it would do no good. The editor wants Kemp to write positive stories, not negative ones, stories that will draw readers to the newspaper and tourists to the island. Kemp and Sala, and even Moburg, join forces to tell the story anyway, and so we are led to expect a big, dramatic showdown, but this does not happen. It might be that this is more realistic than the usual Hollywood story arc—or it could be that the filmmakers ran out of ideas or money.
The excessive drinking and casual drug use of the characters make what could have been a social justice film dubious viewing and discussing for church groups. The filmmakers seem to approve of Thompson’s) kemp’s and Moberg’s) lifestyle, regarding their antics as smart and funny. The audience at the screening I attended obviously was Hunter Thompson fans, also approving of his (Kemp’s) over indulgence of booze, drugs and sex. Hunter Thompson did go on to write of his opposition to fat cats taking advantage of the powerless, but how much more effective might he have been had he become free of drugs and alcohol?
Besides the Peter Weir film I also thought of Oliver Stone’s journalist Peter Boyle in Salvador. Well played by James Woods, Boyle also is a ne’er do well hampered by his excessive drinking until he goes to El Salvador and is aroused by the government’s brutal mistreatment of the peasants. Like Kemp, he finds his voice as a writer, emerging as a person with a conscience who becomes upset enough by the mistreatment of the natives that he wants to use his writing skill to call public attention to their plight. But again, I ask, how much more effective might he have been had he not spent so much time and energy in self-indulgences?
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