Set in idyllic San Juan, Puerto Rico in a time we today look back on as idyllic — the late Eisenhower years on the cusp of Camelot, The Rum Diary is a mild take on early Hunter S. Thompson before he developed into the world’s premier gonzo journalist, making his story the center of the stories he told.
Yes, this is certainly Thompson’s own story but the other characters are fully developed and, in some cases, somewhat interesting.
The story opens in a hotel room where we see Paul Kemp (Johnny Depp) getting out of bed following — it is reasonable to assume — a night of heavy drinking. He takes off for the office of the San Juan Star, the city’s English-language newspaper that was published from 1959 to 2008. There he meets idiosyncratic editor Lotterman (Richard Jenkins) who sports a bad toupee and an equally bad attitude about the paper. But, Lotterman isn’t the only one.
There’s the paper’s photographer, Sala (Michael Rispoli) and an on-again/off-again stoned-on-a-variety-of-substances journalist called Mobeck (Giovanni Ribisi). The latter two offer Paul a place in their apartment.
He also meets Sanderson (Aaron Eckhart) a very wealthy, very slick operator, who wants to get Paul involved in his schemes. Sanderson’s drop-dead-gorgeous girlfriend, Chenault (Amber Heard), is the love interest in the film and, ultimately, Paul must decide if she’s worth fighting for.
The story goes that Johnny Depp was rooting around in Thompson’s Colorado basement when he found the forgotten, unpublished manuscript for The Run Diary. With the thought of a film in mind, he convinced Thompson to publish it and, with a screenplay and direction by Bruce Robinson, this is the result.
There are some really good things in the film. San Juan is beautiful and Michael Rispoli’s performance is terrific. On the other hand, Giovanni Ribisi has to be the most annoying character in a movie this year. He’s sloppy, he whines constantly and admires the Nazis. What’s to like? Then there’s Depp’s performance.
Now, Johnny Depp is a good actor but here, for some odd reason, one gets the sense that he’s standing outside the action as an observer and is not a participant. It’s somewhat off-putting.
On the other hand, the character’s love of drugs — even of drugs that are untested and unfamiliar — and his eagerness to write and experience just about anything give clues to the man Hunter S. Thompson was to become.
In all, The Rum Diary is pretty to look at and quite pleasant. But it neither defines nor enhances Thompson. Or, for that matter, Johnny Depp. It’s one of his minor works.