Marking a welcome return to directing for filmmaker Bruce Robinson (Withnail and I) and a partial return to form for acting megastar Johnny Depp, The Rum Diary (2011) has certainly taking its time in reaching cinemas. An extremely loose adaptation (if the term can even be used) of US Gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson’s early novel of the same name, Robinson’s film plays out as a (relatively) restrained, less overtly surreal partner piece to Terry Gilliam’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998).
Depp plays Paul Kemp (an early cipher for Thompson himself), a roving writer who somehow finds himself in a new role at a local Puerto Rican newspaper. After being interrogated by the paper’s besieged editor Lotterman (Richard Jenkins), Kemp is immediately put to work reporting on bowling alley openings, compiling ludicrous horoscopes and various other equally unglamourous duties. That is until he is approached by property tycoon Sanderson (Aaron Eckhart), who offers Kemp the opportunity to earn a significant sum of greenbacks as his man within the press, whilst he and his cohorts attempt to push through the development of a hotel complex on an untouched nearby island. So begins a rum-soaked tale of corruption, cock-fighting and addiction, in all its many forms.
Unpublished for decades (until, as legend has it, a manuscript was discovered by Depp himself in his late friend’s house and put to press in 1998), Thompson’s The Rum Diary is – unavoidably – a deeply biased, romanticised version of his own time in Puerto Rico. Yet Robinson and Depp (credited as screenwriter) have somehow managed to tease an engaging, deeply humorous and cinematic narrative out of its many pages.
In the lead role, Depp narrowly – but successfully – avoids regurgitating his own turn as Thompson in Gilliam’s Fear and Loathing, and yet is still surpassed by the film’s fine supporting cast. Michael Rispoli and Giovanni Ribisi excel as Kemp’s partners in crime, playing slovenly staff photographer Bob Sala and Hitler-idolising rum-hound Moberg, respectively.
Eckhart and Jenkins are also well-cast as they vie for Kemp’s precious time and attention for their own respective motivations. A special mention should also go to Amber Heard, who plays femme fatale (and Sanderson’s seductive squeeze) Chenault with an enjoyable blend of smoldering sexuality and sensitive innocence.
It is easy to imagine the fate that may have befell The Rum Diary if Hollywood had got its hands on it (if it would have even seen the light of day at all) or had Depp – along with his production company Infinitum Nihil – not given Robinson the time and space to make his own movie. There is more than a hint of Withnail and I about proceedings, which can be no bad thing.
The film, as a whole, does suffer from a distinct feeling of one-sidedness, however. Kemp is very much portrayed as a sozzled revolutionary, promising to “speak for [his] reader” with “a voice made from ink and rage” towards the somewhat anti-climactic finale. There is also a noticeable lack of danger throughout – Kemp and his band of misfits certainly get into a few scrapes along the way, but never do you feel that his life is tangibly in danger from either shadowy corporate figures or the oppressed local community.
The Rum Diary is neither remarkable nor revolutionary – even within the confines of this year’s American cinematic output – but it functions well as an enjoyable romp through a minefield of journalistic ethics (a hot topic at present), and for that it deserves praise.