Going gonzo in Puerto Rico
By Ann Hornaday
Friday, Oct 28, 2011
As a posthumous valentine to his old friend Hunter S. Thompson, Johnny Depp's adaptation of "The Rum Diary" exudes a cheery, beery sense of warmth and affection. Depp - who plays Thompson's alter ego, Paul Kemp - coaxed writer-director Bruce Robinson ("Withnail and I") out of retirement to bring Thompson's long-unadapted book to the screen, with mixed results.
Brimming with Thompson's alcohol-drenched antics, observational wit and gift for the acidly apposite phrase, "The Rum Diary" also suffers from a creakily episodic structure and a fatally underwritten, flimsily acted supporting role. No doubt Thompson's fans will savor Depp's impersonation of the author's cracked, clipped cadences - perfected in "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas" and Alex Gibney's documentary "Gonzo" - in a shaggy-dog story that amounts to an origin story of what would come to be Thompson's signature journalistic style.
Viewers coming to "The Rum Diary" with visions of Jack Sparrow cavorting in their heads may find less to value, although Thompson's tale of lust, larceny and derring-do in 1960s Puerto Rico bursts with piratical brio - not to mention several bottles of the eponymous elixir (yo-ho-ho doesn't even begin to describe it).
As "The Rum Diary" opens, budding-novelist Kemp has just come to San Juan to work at the teetering English-language newspaper the Daily News, arriving hung over at his first meeting with his boss, the aggressively toupee-ed Mr. Lotterman (Richard Jenkins). Urged to write anodyne puff pieces on the local tourist scene, Kemp instead turns in biting portraits of American cultural colonialists he dubs the "Great Whites . . . beasts of obesity" who prefer spending time in their hotels' bowling alleys than seeing the native byways of the island.
Before long, Kemp meets a PR man named Sanderson (Aaron Eckhart), whose modernist beach bungalow and snazzy sports car turn Kemp's head almost as much as his girlfriend, an inaccessible icon of blonde perfection named Chenault (Amber Heard). The plot grows ever plottier, with Kemp eventually enlisting his two friends Sala (Michael Rispoli) and Moburg (Giovanni Ribisi) in a scheme that involves a cock fight, a break-in and a visit to a hermaphroditic oracle.
Robinson infuses "The Rum Diary" with a breezy, capering energy, letting his camera languish as lovingly on Kemp's summer whites and Ray-Bans as on the gorgeous junglelike scenery of Puerto Rico, where the movie was filmed.
To his credit, Depp tones down the Thompson impersonation, especially in the film's genuinely affecting final scenes, when the source of what would become Thompson's reliably lacerating indignation come into clear focus. The fact that his voice came by way of a hallucinogenic drug that he and Sala take one rainy night doesn't tempt Robinson to get trippy with the visuals; with the exception of one hilarious vision, he plays even that scene straight.
Rispoli and Ribisi tuck into their supporting roles with louche relish, although Moburg's addled worship of Adolf Hitler is problematically played for laughs in a story that finds outrage in the casual racism of American corporate hegemonists.
The weakest link here is Heard, who possesses the icy cool of Kim Novak but whose character never quite comes into fuller focus than as a hyper-sexualized object of desire.
For all "The Rum Diary's" meandering pace and lack of edge, there's inarguable pleasure to be had simply in hearing Thompson's deathless prose rattled off like so much dyspeptic poetry, from the "blackheads like Braille" on Moburg's nose to Sala's wistful observation that "some days are two sizes too small."
More to the point, there's a sweetness in considering Thompson on the verge of creating his own myth, before it locked him into self-indulgent mannerisms. "I don't know how to write like me," Kemp meekly admits to Chenault at one point. Eventually, of course, he did, and "The Rum Diary" goes a long, sportively discursive way to show how one writer found a voice that he himself described as "made of ink and rage."
Contains profanity, brief drug use and sexuality.