Johnny Depp’s blinding affection for late gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson convinced him to play the writer’s alter ego – again – in ‘The Rum Diary.’
That casting made sense for 1998’s ‘Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,’ a Thompson-inspired film produced while Depp was still in his early 30s.
Now, as the actor creeps up on 50 (he’s 48), he’s far too old to be playing Thompson at the dawn of his muckraking career. Yet the age disparity isn’t what leaves a sour taste here. The film lacks a third act of consequence, and a text coda plastered on at the end hardly makes amends.
But there’s still Depp dabbling in his hero’s life story and a snappy script which treats Thompson’s one-liners like those tiny liquor bottles lurking in a hotel room refrigerator. You know you shouldn’t gulp them down, but they’re too tantalizing to resist.
Depp plays Paul Kemp, a failed novelist trying to earn a gig at an English language newspaper in Puerto Rico circa 1960. Paul can’t speak Spanish, has a resume brimming with tall tales and shows up hung over for an interview with the paper’s editor (Richard Jenkins).
You’re hired! Now, start writing tomorrow’s horoscope.
Paul shows far more interest in the country’s bar scene than meeting deadlines, but he manages to pal up with the paper’s photographer (Michael Rispoli channeling a disheveled Jack Nicholson) while catching the attention of a burly U.S. businessman (Aaron Eckhart). It’s the kind of broadly drawn villain we expect from a Thompson project, but the actor imbues him with a nobility not found in the script.
The businessman plans to exploit Puerto Rico’s natural resources to meet his capitalistic whims, and he wants Kemp to grease the wheels by writing a few positive pieces about the pending deal. It’s just the sort of exchange that helps transforms Kemp into a social justice warrior. But before Kemp can save the world, he drops a little acid to ensure his life heads in a new, mentally addled direction.
Writer/director Bruce Robinson (‘Withnail and I’) recreates Puerto Rico’s past with incredible fidelity. It’s a gorgeous country, and ‘The Rum Diary’ is delectable to behold even when the story slows to a (pub) crawl. It helps that Depp and co. feast on some of Thompson’s best one-liners, a cacophony of wisecracks which pick up the narrative slack.
And there’s plenty of the latter, particularly with a tepid love triangle involving Depp and co-star Amber Heard. The blonde stunner may light up the screen, but her role isn’t dynamic enough to register.
Robinson only indulges in one acid-style trip, preferring to illustrate the numbing effects of alcohol in more realistic fashion. Audiences may feel hung over themselves watching a bleary-eyed Depp waking from one bender after another.
The sober Kemp allows Depp to dial down his idiosyncratic instincts, letting the character seem normal next to the circus of clowns around him. Giovanni Ribisi wears the floppiest shoes and grease paint as Moburg, a man who spends his entire life in an altered state.
The film coasts on its beautiful locales and trippy exchanges, but just as ‘Diary’ appears headed toward a grand finale, the story quietly implodes. Thompson’s own life provided plenty of adventure for those willing to tap it, but this ‘Diary’ wraps with a whisper, not a battle cry.
‘The Rum Diary’ recalls the dawn of a gonzo journalist, but it’s best served when letting its stars run amok amidst the beauty of Puerto Rico.