Depp’s ‘Diaries’ channel Thompson’s demons

Star tubthumps for pic but auds thrown by oddities

Box office results have been downright flaccid of late, and while it may be unkind to single out a specific loser, I cannot let “Rum Diaries” disappear without comment.

Johnny Depp’s passion project is a mess of a movie — one that I greatly enjoyed. Few others did, however, despite Depp’s heroic promotion efforts. While the superstar was ubiquitous on the interview circuit (albeit marginally comatose during a Larry King special), “Rum Diaries” was eking out a paltry $10 million in 2,292 theaters in week two while another stoner saga, the latest “Harold and Kumar,” was blowing past.

How can you not admire the world’s highest-paid movie star for taking time out to co-produce, co-write and star in a cinematic tribute to Hunter S. Thompson, the prickly creator of the “fear and loathing” diatribes? Would the journalist have returned the favor? When an editor once offered him a job, Thompson responded, “Don’t expect me to send you a package of platitudes to drape over the stinking carcass of your newspaper like an American flag over a coffin full of crap.”

The boozy Thompson was always pissed off, and that’s the paradox of Depp’s biopic. Depp venerated Thompson but was not the actor to play him. In the film, Depp seems pliant, almost benign — a good soul responding to the madness surrounding him. If it’s difficult to figure out what the character (or the movie) is all about, that’s because it’s based on a novel that Thompson kept on rewriting for 40 years, never figuring out his “voice,” as he says in the movie.

The problem was that Thompson became an icon but not a novelist, and not quite a journalist either. His likeness ended up on as many T-shirts as Kurt Cobain or Mick Jagger but his “gonzo journalism,” like his life, never seemed based in reality. Thompson said he endorsed William Faulkner’s contention that “the best fiction is far more true than any kind of journalism.” Hence, why let facts get in the way of good writing since “facts are lies when they’re added up.”

Whether immortalizing the Hells Angels or Las Vegas or Richard Nixon’s campaign style, Thompson was on the scene, boozing it up and spewing forth his colorful epiphanies. “I’m out here studying an epidemic of arrested development called the American Dream,” he explained.

And he was not exactly a joy to deal with. Learning of rejection from one book editor, he responded, “I’m coming to New York to shoot you in the gut with an expanding filth flare, rupturing every bone and organ I can make contact with.”

Arguably, Thompson’s tantrums made him more akin to Depp’s caricature of the loony pirate Capt. Jack Sparrow in his ‘Caribbean’ megahits. But Depp saw him as more empathetic.

Hence his Hunter Thompson is a confused young writer who ventures to Puerto Rico in the ’60s in search of a job and a voice. In his naivete, he falls into a pattern of getting drunk, arrested and seduced by the evil forces around him.

Depp connected with this character enough to weather the numbing Q&A rituals of the interview circuit, patiently explaining why he made the movie and deftly dodging queries about his personal life, his private island or even his reading habits. Since Depp will never win a Pulitzer Prize for lucidity, his fans may have been left wondering why their beloved pirate would devote his energies to this errant mission — but love him for it anyway.

If Thompson himself were advising Depp, he probably would come up with a rant similar to one he sent to a fellow writer. “I’m too greedy to wish you much luck but if you can break through without stepping on my head I hope you make it. After all, I’ve compromised myself so often that I can’t honestly see myself as a martyr anymore.”