A Gonzo Candle, Burned at Both Ends
It probably seemed like a great idea to hire Nick Nolte as narrator for a documentary about Hunter S. Thompson. Mr. Thompson, the author of “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,” “Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail” and “Hell’s Angels: A Strange and Terrible Saga,” invented gonzo journalism. Mr. Nolte has a reputation for living gonzo.
But alas, when Mr. Nolte’s voice begins in “Buy the Ticket, Take the Ride: Hunter S. Thompson on Film,” which has its premiere tonight on Starz, he sounds less like an outlaw than a slightly slow student who doesn’t understand the words he is reading. Tom Marksbury’s sometimes-pedestrian script doesn’t help.
The only time Mr. Nolte is frighteningly right for the part is at the end, when he reads Mr. Thompson’s typically brilliant suicide note.
Mr. Thompson shot himself at his Colorado home in February 2005. He was 67, which was probably an indignity to a man who was professionally young and reckless. How ya gonna inspire the next generation to anarchy when you look like a retired hardware salesman?
Despite the Hollywood star power (Johnny Depp, Sean Penn, Bill Murray) in “Buy the Ticket, Take the Ride,” the best parts are those in which somebody (anybody) reads Mr. Thompson’s work. For instance, he once described Richard M. Nixon as “a foul caricature of himself, a man with no soul, no inner convictions, with the integrity of a hyena and the style of a poison toad.”
Sadly, the rest of the time the talking heads rattle on, and even interviews with Mr. Thompson are relatively uninformative. His message, as they say, was in his work.
It seems that the director, Tom Thurman, couldn’t bring himself to edit out any celebrity comment, even if that person’s point had been made several times before. (A peculiar exchange with Gary Busey belongs in another film.)
This might be all right if the people at least said it in fresh ways. But many of the comments are as unsurprising as George McGovern’s: “He shook up the establishment.” One likable exception is William F. Buckley’s likening Mr. Thompson to “a streaker in Queen Victoria’s drawing room.”
And Tom Wolfe does pay Mr. Thompson a lavish compliment, calling him “the century’s greatest comic writer in the English language.”
“Buy the Ticket, Take the Ride” offers a bit of biographical background. Mr. Thompson was born and grew up in Kentucky, where he was a self-described juvenile delinquent. After high school he joined the Air Force. He was married twice and had one son. His widow, Anita, calls him “a supreme Southern gentleman.”
A welcome possible side effect of the documentary, which could have easily been a half-hour shorter, is that it will inspire viewers to read Mr. Thompson’s work, perhaps starting with his early magazine article “The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent and Depraved.”
BUY THE TICKET, TAKE THE RIDE
Hunter S. Thompson on Film
Starz, tonight at 10, Eastern and Pacific times; 9, Central time.
Directed by Tom Thurman; written by Tom Marksbury; narrated by Nick Nolte; produced by Christopher Black and Mr. Thurman; Michael Ruggiero and Stephan Shelanski, executive producers; Jim Piston, director of photography and editor; lighting by Sean Anderson; original music by Frank Schapp and Otto Helmuth.