Like Hunter S. Thompson did in his life, Judge Kerry Birmingham leads a life of danger and adventure, if by "danger" you mean "napping" and by "adventure" you mean "going to the Dairy Queen, the one by the mall."
"I hate to advocate drugs, alcohol, violence, or insanity to anyone…but they've always worked for me." -Hunter S. Thompson
There's enough in the abbreviated life of Hunter S. Thompson, progenitor of the "gonzo" journalism movement, to fill dozens of books, beyond just his own, and an equally voluminous number of documentaries. Equal parts righteous crusader, petulant curmudgeon, and genuine bat-shit crazy person, the author of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, The Rum Diary, and a passel of other seminal journalistic works took inspiration from literary heroes like F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway, living a truly extraordinary, if not exactly exemplary, life. By the time of his 2005 suicide, Thompson had successfully built up his own madcap persona and influence into a small empire, using the popularity and proliferation of his distinctive style and unhinged charisma to hobnob with movie stars and generally raise a ruckus on his Colorado ranch.
Director Tom Thurman and writer Tom Marksbury attempt to synthesize the hectic and unbelievable life of Thompson in Buy the Ticket, Take the Ride (named after one of Thompson's oft-repeated phrases), produced for the Starz cable channel and released as part of a larger retrospective on Thompson's life that includes a photo book and an oral history spearheaded by Thompson's Rolling Stone editor, Jann Wenner. A digest version of Thompson's life, the film follows Thompson from his misspent Kentucky youth to his (court-mandated) military service to his literary ambitions to his late-life renaissance as a celebrated iconoclast. It would be unbelievable if it weren't all true, or true enough. Befitting Thompson's dichotomous nature and broad appeal, interview subjects include stately colleagues like Ed Bradley (disconcertingly sporting an earring) and Tom Wolfe; usual suspects Sean Penn and Johnny Depp; and, need we a visual reminder of Thompson's fondness for excess, Gary Busey and Nick Nolte (who narrates). Even Bill Murray makes an appearance. All of this is interspersed with footage of the man himself, simultaneously charming, scathing, and borderline incomprehensible.
Perhaps in an effort to broaden the target audience and adequately justify the subtitle of "Hunter S. Thompson on Film," much time is spent on the film versions of Thompson's life and work, 1980's Where the Buffalo Roam and 1998's Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, in which Thompson or his surrogate is played by Murray and Depp, respectively. The making of these movies (particularly Fear and Loathing, whose director, Terry Gilliam, has the worst luck with that sort of thing) are interesting enough to warrant their own documentaries. It's somewhat superfluous to the subject of Thompson himself, though Thurman and Marksbury insert some insight by and about Thompson to make it all relevant. Thompson may have been good with a turn of phrase, but Johnny Depp keeps eyes on the screen.
Whatever insight's to be had, however, is a victim of space. In its effort to encompass as much of Thompson and his world as possible in its short running time, Buy the Ticket, Take the Ride never has the luxury of delving too far into its subject beyond the bullet points of autobiographical detail and facile speculation into his mindset and death. There are no deleted scenes included on the DVD-a pair of brief Starz promotional spots are the sole extras-so anything too in-depth must have been left on the cutting room floor. Thurman had the thankless task of encapsulating Thompson's life, work, and impact in an easy-to-digest package, using limited available footage (much of the Thompson interview footage is taken from another documentary, Breakfast with Hunter). That the film provides as much insight as it does while remaining a primer on all things Hunter S. Thompson is a testament to the filmmakers' balancing act. Devotees won't find much here they don't already know, but as an introduction to the man and his work, it's ideal. Buy the ticket, take the ride, just don't expect much beyond John Cusack telling a funny story about playing "shotgun golf" with Hunter.
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