Director Bruce Robinson’s adaptation of Hunter S. Thompson’s semi-autobiographical novel “The Rum Diary” is part wild travelogue and part ode to the iconic Gonzo journalist.
Johnny Depp plays Paul Kemp (though he might as well be portraying Thompson himself), a failed novelist whose boredom with late 1950s New York City life and American politics drives him to Puerto Rico to become a journalist for the crumbling San Juan Star. The plot mirrors Thompson’s own early career. The story loosely revolves around Kemp’s uncovering of social and economic corruption in San Juan, his pursuit of a beautiful married woman named Chenault (Amber Heard), and his miscellaneous drunken misadventures with photographer Bob Sala (Michael Rispoli).
The episodic nature of the film poses one of its main problems. In Robinson’s attempt to instill Thompson’s eclectic narrative style and personality, the writer-director jumps from drinking to romance to journalistic ethics without a clear thematic focus. Because of this uneven structure, especially toward the climax, many scenes either drag on for too long or end too abruptly, which creates a sense of lack of fulfillment or over-indulgence.
Still, the majority of the film is quite entertaining. Scenes of Kemp’s drunken excursions with Sala generate laughs, especially for those familiar with Thompson’s affinity for alcohol and drugs. With a few exceptions, these scenes do not dilute the seriousness of Kemp’s confrontations with his editor Lotterman (Richard Jenkins) over honesty in journalism, and immoral businessman Sanderson (Aaron Eckhart) over the exploitation of Puerto Rican people by American entrepreneurs. Robinson captures a more serious, earnest side of Thompson’s journalism and literature, which is often eclipsed by his drug use and eccentricity.
Depp played Thompson effectively before in Terry Gilliam’s “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,” and he expands the role already familiar to him. Gilliam’s earlier film portrays Thompson as a living cartoon, but in “The Rum Diary,” Depp scales back the exaggerations and portrays Kemp more realistically as a man caught up in the culture shock of San Juan. Kemp seems younger and more no-nonsense in this film. He is also more passionate and less pessimistic about politics and journalism. He abuses his share of substances, but believes in his writing.
Robinson and Depp’s combined efforts present a picture of Thompson in his youth, when failure meant the opening of more windows of opportunity, and when journalism had real power to shake up the “bastards” who manipulated the little people. It is that genuineness and passion that makes “The Rum Diary” a pleasant ride in spite of some of its uneven pacing.
With “The Rum Diary,” Robinson does not get drunk on the mythology of Thompson’s legend, but offers a more neglected perspective of the author that, if no less rebellious, is all the more compelling.
“The Rum Diary” was written and directed by Bruce Robinson, and based on the novel by Hunter S. Thompson.
3 stars out of 4.