There's no doubting the sincerity of Johnny Depp's devotion to Hunter S. Thompson, the late gonzo journalist who chronicled the cultural decay of the 1960s and '70s while suitably blitzed on hard drugs and alcohol. Depp played him in 1998's "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas," appeared in a 2008 documentary on Thompson and is now playing a thinly fictionalized version in "The Rum Diary."
If you're also a Thompsonologist, the movie may be of scholarly interest. It's based on his early, semi-autobiographical novel about an American journalist, Paul Kemp (Depp), who joins the San Juan Star in Puerto Rico in 1960 and, between drinking binges, uncovers a web of corrupt politicians and land developers. It contains the seeds of Thompson's more famous works, notably the quixotic quest and a Sancho Panza-like sidekick (here a boozy photographer named Sala, played with earthy charm by Michael Rispoli). It also contains Thompson's favorite, outraged refrain: "Bastards!"
Unfortunately, it's also a disastrous mess that has no idea what it's trying to say or do. Kemp's editor, Lotterman (Richard Jenkins), bemoans the death of journalism but nixes controversial stories; Kemp rages against the rich while accepting payoffs from a wheeler-dealer named Sanderson (Aaron Eckhart). The film is mostly made of disjointed scenes involving drunken high jinks, hallucinatory episodes and Sanderson's oversexed but otherwise useless girlfriend, Chenault (Amber Heard).
Better things could have been expected from writer-director Bruce Robinson, whose cult classic "Withnail and I" was a far more vivid evocation of debauchery and disillusionment. What's more, Depp once again plays Thompson as a bug-eyed, lock-jawed, self-aggrandizing cartoon, tiresomely extolling his own "voice made of ink and rage." At this rate, Depp may be doing Thompson's memory more harm than good.
PLOT An adaptation of Hunter S. Thompson's novel about an American journalist running amok in Puerto Rico. RATING R (profanity, sexuality, drug use)
PLAYING AT Area theaters.
BOTTOM LINE A plotless, pointless mess likely to exasperate even die-hard Thompson fans.