An anticipated follow-up to one of the all-time classics
Creators are funny things: Give them a vision, inspire them, and they can produce phenomenal works of incredible insight and entertainment. But collaborative efforts are a different thing altogether -- put two visionaries together, and you MIGHT get a classic work out of them, but more often than not you get clashing egos that tear a project apart. Get three artists in the top of their field involved and those numbers go down exponentially.
Why do I tell you this? Because I want to convey to you the rarity and outright insanity of the film, Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas. The film is a collaborative effort between well-known auteur filmmaker Terry Gilliam, the father of “Gonzo Journalism” Hunter S. Thompson, and the (at the time) delightfully weird Johnny Depp. It was a triumph: A film so grotesque, and yet so moving, that you couldn’t look away. With characters so dysfunctionally disgusting and themes so outside the norm of mainstream film that it should have imploded upon itself and remained forgotten in the annals of Hollywood history… But it’s not; it is now a time-tested classic cinematic masterpiece that introduced a whole new generation to the misadventures of Thompson’s alter egos, Raoul Duke and Dr. Gonzo.
While Thompson took his own life to escape the authoritarian, dystopian world wrought by Bush-era politics, Gillam and Depp went on. It’s arguable to say that Gilliam hasn’t quite made a name for himself since, while people are beginning to tire of Johnny Depp (much in thanks to a certain pirate movie franchise and his stale collaborations with walking goth pastiche Tim Burton).
So, when Depp chose to star in and produce a “follow-up” film based on Hunter S. Thompson’s novel, The Rum Diary, it could be said that the excitement was high. Thompson, after all, was known for underground articles and flourished journalism where he was a central character, not just reporting the news but providing his views on it. And while The Rum Diary is on the whole or at least semi-fictional, it is quite obviously inspired by Thompson and his central character, Paul Kemp is another self-insertion into the world of the novel (which is based on his own time in Puerto Rico).
But then, Terry Gilliam (who to my knowledge has never made a sequel to any film) wasn’t directing, and Hunter S. Thompson took an early retirement aboard the bullet express. And this is why the film simply cannot compare to the “original.”
The plot, unthickened
The story is about as disjointed as the original film. Paul Kemp is a journalist and failed novelist who takes a job in Puerto Rico with a paper called the San Juan Star. Among his failures are his inability to speak Spanish and his alcoholism, which is raging at the beginning of the film. As the story goes on he meets the usual cadre of Thompson-esque freaks in the form of drunks, users, and degenerates – in this case his co-workers. Along the way he gets involved with a white-collar criminal named Hal Sanderson, who is seeking to exploit the island, rob the people, and exploit its resources the first chance he gets. Kemp seems to roll with Hal’s ambitions, both too meek to question his motivations and too poor to refuse. Along the way Kemp and his friend, photographer Bob Sala (a much more sanguine Dr. Gonzo stand-in), have a run-in with the law, break confidentiality reports, and generally spend the movie in a drunken stupor. Kemp falls in love with Sanderson’s girlfriend Chenault, as he misses deadlines and watches the paper he works for eventually spiral and collapse. There is plenty of cockfighting (literal in this sense) in-between.
That’s basically all that happens in the film, albeit for 120 minutes and told with (slightly more) flourish.
So why doesn’t it work?
The movie should work: The characters are weird, the sets are period-appropriate, the actors are fantastic, and the world they inhabit is both shiny and chrome in that early 60s kind of way, but also becomes disgusting and decrepit in the cesspool of the Puerto Rican slums.
No, there’s one simple failing the movie has, and that’s direction. Don’t get me wrong, screenwriter Bruce Robinson tried his best, and I’m sure he had a lot of input from depth, but while his direction is competent, it’s not really good. I know that sounds harsh, and well… it sort of is. This is his first directorial film since 1992’s Jennifer 8, and it shows. He obviously has a love for Thompson’s work, but let’s face it: He’s not Terry Gilliam.
It all boils down to energy, and it’s something that the film sorely lacks as it wistfully plods from one set piece to the next, with Depp’s Kemp more of an observer than a participant in most of the scenes. This was done semi-intentionally, of course: It is supposed to be a younger and less “Gonzo” Raoul Duke in his formative years, but regrettably with one exceptional scene near the end (a visit to a voodoo witch doctor) there is none of the fast-paced insanity of Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas. What we get instead is a lot of medium frame static shots of people talking, and while the dialog is painstakingly adapted from Thompson’s own words (and delivered in a weird, Wes Anderson sort of play-acting), there’s just not enough happening artistically or thematically to drive the story.
The bottom line
If you’re a fan of Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas, re-watch it. There’s nothing really inspired or invested in this film to consider it worth viewing. I applaud that Depp wanted to reprise the role, but this is not the same weirdo that we fell in love with back in 1998.
The sad thing is, after the critical panning this film received, we may never get any other adaptations of Thompson’s other works, but if they’d be anything like The Rum Diary, we’re not missing much.