The Rum Diary is not just a film, it is a final gift to a dead friend. It is based on an early novel by Hunter S. Thompson that wasn’t published until 1998, after Johnny Depp came across it in Thompson’s attic, and then convinced the writer to publish it. Depp reportedly also promised to turn the book into a movie, which, with the help of some of his own cash, he has now done.
Apart from generating lots of laughs, the semi-autobiographical film maps out events Thompson experienced while living in Puerto Rico in 1960 — a period during which he found his voice and invented gonzo journalism. Writer/director Bruce Robinson (How to Get Ahead in Advertising) adapts the material with an ear for piercing dialogue, an eye for crucial atmospheric details, and a sensitivity to the romanticism of the novel. Amber Heard delivers the sex appeal of six women as Chenault, a vivacious blonde with an appetite for danger.
Functional alcoholic Paul Kemp (Depp) is a stand-in for Thompson, the way the Raul Duke character was in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Kemp arrives on the Caribbean Island with his sense of style intact. A snazzy pair of Ray Bans and a good suit disguise Kemp’s nasty hangover when he goes for a job interview with Lotterman, the contentious editor (Richard Jenkins) of a local American rag, the San Juan Star. Lotterman recognizes that Kemp’s résumé is total bullshit but gives him the job anyway. He needs to replace another writer who was “raped to death” in a public restroom. That’s right: “raped to death.”
Kemp instantly falls in with the company of staff photographer Sala (wonderfully played by Michael Rispoli), who also enjoys imbibing, chasing women, and taking mysterious drugs whose unpredictable effects he is happy to catalog firsthand. Giovanni Ribisi is Moburg, an even more unreliable sort. He’s an eccentric writer who only shows up around the newspaper office on Fridays, in order to collect his check. His specialty is more in the realm of exploring underground local scenes than actually writing about them. The fact that Moburg never bathes and likes to listen to LP records of Hitler’s speeches only slightly disrupts Kemp’s take-it-as-it-comes lifestyle when our hero moves into the squalid apartment Moburg and Sala share.
The crux of the story rattles around Sanderson (Aaron Eckhart), a shady real-estate tycoon who sinks his hooks into Kemp to have him write pro-development stories that will expedite his plans to push through the construction of beachfront hotel complexes. The loan of a candy-apple-red ’56 Corvette, a wad of cash, and the chance to get near Sanderson’s sexpot girlfriend, Chenault, is all Kemp needs to go along for the ride. Whether or not he ever signs Sanderson’s confidentiality agreement remains an open question.
As with Bruce Robinson’s enormously popular cult film Withnail and I, The Rum Diary is an alcohol-soaked story of a search for self that comes from crawling through the belly of the beast — in this case, the world inhabited by Puerto Rico’s native inhabitants, whose extreme poverty Kemp eventually comes to recognize. His revelation about the abuses of capitalism infuriates and propels him. Forevermore, he will mix rage into his ink.
The Rum Diary is a damn funny movie with a lot on its mind. It’s great fun to watch and listen to Johnny Depp play Hunter S. Thompson again. If you miss Hunter as much as I do, you don’t want to miss this movie.