The notion of Johnny Depp in another movie based on a novel by Hunter S. Thompson sets a certain level of expectation, thanks to the actor’s memorable turn in Terry Gilliam’s surreal, chaotic 1998 adaptation of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Viewers going into Depp and writer-director Bruce Robinson’s version of Thompson’s The Rum Diary will be either pleased or disappointed to find less of the same, depending on their preference. Fear and Loathing in San Juan it ain’t, nor is it a great movie; however, it is an intriguing (if somewhat thin) origin story of a gonzo journalist.
Depp stars as Paul Kemp, an idealized caricature of Thompson, (read: a less dissolute Raoul Duke) who arrives in San Juan Puerto Rico in 1960 to take a job at the local paper. It’s a rag that’s been circling the drain for some time, run by a cynical editor (Richard Jenkins under an intentionally horrendous toupee) who hates his staff as much as they hate him. He immediately flags Kemp as trouble, but gives him the job anyway, mainly because he was the only one who applied for it.
Kemp quickly makes friends with fellow malcontents Robert Sala (Michael Rispoli), a staff photographer, and Moburg (Giovanni Ribisi), a long-since fired reporter who has taken alcoholism to new and dizzying heights. He also falls into the path of Sanderson (Aaron Eckhart), a property developer involved in some shady deals with even shadier politicians. Kemp agrees to work for him, partly for the money but mostly because he’s smitten with Sanderson’s free-spirited fiancee, Chenault (Amber Heard). Wackiness and heavy drinking ensue.
The story is pseudo-semi-autobiographical; Thompson ventured down to San Juan in 1959 seeking a job at the San Juan Star at the callow age of 22, but was turned down. (Having previously been fired from Time for insubordination and the Middletown Daily Record for assassinating a vending machine probably didn’t help.) It (or at least the motion picture version) is also a little unfocused. There is purpose to it – in between drunken excursions into squalid misadventure, Kemp tries to rally a decaying press corps into battle for the little guy against a greed-fueled Goliath — but the story, like Kemp, drifts through a haze towards a vague notion of, well, something.
There are strong moments, usually on the comedy side, and Robinson does an excellent job of infusing the movie with the right amount of seediness. The filmmaker made an indelible name for himself in 1987 with the thematically similar Withnail & I. That makes him the obvious choice to direct The Rum Diary, though not necessarily the best one, as he sometimes seems to be emulating the former to varying degrees of success.
Depp was a close friend of Thompson’s during the last decade or so of his life, and knew just as well as most others, if not better. He was instrumental getting the novel published in 1998, and has been guiding the movie version through production since then. He doesn’t build his performance around his performance around Thompson’s mannerisms the way he did in Fear and Loathing; instead, he infuses Kemp with some of Thompson’s ethos. “I smell bastards, and truth,” he says near the film’s conclusion. “I smell ink.” It sums up Thompson — or at least his legend — rather nicely.