Don't call it Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas 2, even though you could think of it as a prequel if you felt like it. Just understand that you won't be buying a ticket to Mr. Depp's Wild Ride. Imagine, instead, a strange, shaggy trip through a landscape of failure with Depp as the understated, hungover tour guide. And know that it's good to be reminded that a man who goes on to become well-known, even revered, for his fascinating, memorable work and life can also spend formative years falling flat on his face, whether that falling is literal or figurative or both.
Depp plays Thompson's alter ego, Paul Kemp, a struggling journalist and early-stage alcoholic working for a failing newspaper in San Juan, Puerto Rico, in 1960. Kemp gets involved with a friendly, jaded photographer (Michael Rispoli from The Sopranos) and an insane, wasted husk of a writer named Moberg (Giovanni Ribisi, acting like a rage-filled Captain Jack Sparrow and yelling stuff like "I AM THE DEATH MACHINE!"). Together, they find themselves working with and, ultimately, against the enemy -- greedy land developers, among them Aaron Eckhart, typecast again as That Jerk with the Mean Face and A-Hole-Ish Attitude -- against the backdrop of a Union Carbide pollution scandal that nobody seems to find all that scandalous.
But I'm making it sound too plot-intensive by telling you all that. And it's not. In fact, if movies were mildly drunk drivers, this one would be like riding shotgun while your buzzed friend meanders around an empty parking lot telling you about all the crazy Ambien dreams he's been having lately. Characters drop in and become more or less connected to the story and that story does, in its own sweet time, develop a kind of hazy structure, but the movie knows never to let mechanics get in the way of the scenery, which includes good long looks at a rhinestone-encrusted turtle, bowling with booze bottles, a slow-motion LSD trip, some fire-breathing, a riveting display of Amber Heard dirty-dancing, a "hermaphroditic oracle of the dead" who belches up little frogs while casting spells, and some good old-fashioned cockfighting.
Happily, all of this weirdity fuels Depp's journalistic conscience -- he's Hunter S. Thompson here, after all -- and righteous anger at the "piss puddle of greed spreading throughout the world" until he announces, as he finds his writer-voice, "I put The Bastards of the world on notice: I do not have their best interests at heart."
It's not even a little bit of a spoiler to say that the hungover hero's efforts fall mostly to ruin and that he fails to turn the tide of corruption and corporate evil, because the movie, right down to its trash-the-hotel-room ad campaign, isn't exactly setting up this character for a third act victory. The filmmakers know that getting it all wrong is just one of the steps on the road to getting it right. Eventually.