by L. Thompson | Thu., Oct. 27, 2011 5:23 PM
Review in a Hurry: Johnny Depp's most popular role was as a rum-guzzling pirate, but despite the ample presence of the Caribbean spirits—and ads promoting a broader comedy—this isn't Captain Jack Redux. Rather, it's a sort of unofficial prequel to Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, more likely to appeal to college students drunkenly completing their writing assignments than lusty ladies with a navy jones.
The Bigger Picture: Depp's been trying to get this movie off the ground for quite a while, having had a hand in assembling the novel to begin with. He's not quite in his early twenties, as Hunter S. Thompson was when he wrote the book based on his own experiences in Puerto Rico during the Eisenhower administration. But having played another older and balder Thompson alter ego before in Fear and Loathing, and having worked hard on his abs, he pulls off "younger" in a more general way.
Director Bruce Robinson isn't as visually groundbreaking as Terry Gilliam with the Thompson imagery, but he did make one of the most definitive alcoholic comedies of all time in Withnail and I, so he's a smooth fit for this scattershot story of reckless writer Paul Kemp (Depp as Thompson), a man given a job at the shoddy San Juan Star because he's the only one who applied for it. Between tests of his tolerance threshold (this marks the second movie of the year, after Rango, to feature Depp breathing fire after guzzling grungy grog), Kemp is courted by shady businessmen (Aaron Eckhart among them) to write PR for the hotels they're about to build on a secret island.
For those who'd like to make an explicit prequel connection, the scene in which Kemp tries his first sample of the drug that will eventually become known as LSD might just be, to the Fear and Loathing aficionado, akin to that moment in The Phantom Menace when Liam Neeson says, "Anakin Skywalker, meet Obi-Wan Kenobi." It certainly features the best use of the word "giblet" in any line of cinematic dialogue, ever.
Still, it's hard to know how this will all go over with the average moviegoer. Expect a disproportionate number of positive reviews from individuals who've worked in a newsroom and understand some of the direct satire and ink-stained archetypes. Expect completely mystified responses from lifelong teetotalers. To those somewhere in between, will the mini-romance with Amber Heard be enough? The bottle is the true love interest here. The angry truth only becomes one later, as this is, after all, something of an origin story.
Like a casual drinker at a frat party, the casual Depp fan may not dig it. But as the dedication at the end says, this one's for Hunter.
The 180—a Second Opinion: Giovanni Ribisi is a really odd choice to play the role of a scuzzy old burnout. Depp's Rango covoice Harry Dean Stanton is still alive, and could have swung it perfectly.