A young reporter seeking adventure finds it — plus danger, corruption and romance — in San Juan, Puerto Rico, circa 1960 in The Rum Diary, an adaption of the novel by Hunter S. Thompson.
Paul Kemp (Johnny Depp), who is the Thompson stand-in of this story, comes to San Juan to work for the English newspaper there. He is hired — in spite of an obvious fakery-filled résumé — because he is the only applicant. Like all good newspapermen of the old school, he’s a recreational drinker if being blind drunk is the intended recreation. And he has a tendency to covet women way beyond his pay grade. Which is how, after only days in San Juan, he finds himself lustfully in love with Chenault (Amber Heard), the bombshell blonde fiancée of Sanderson (Aaron Eckhart), a sharky-seeming PR man. He works for assorted business interests looking to exploit whatever natural beauty and resources they can and Sanderson, for whatever reason, thinks Kemp can help. Meanwhile, Kemp finds himself moving into the decaying apartment of one of the paper’s photographers, Sala (Michael Rispoli), and a fellow reporter, Moburg (Giovanni Ribisi), a drug-addled loon who listens to records of Hitler’s speeches and shows up to work so seldom that editor Lotterman (Richard Jenkins) can’t find him to fire him.
Watching The Rum Diary is a very similar experience to that of reading any given Hunter S. Thompson essay. It’s amusing, alcohol-soaked, sort of hazy, draggy, clever, jumbled, suddenly and not-completely-sensically rage-filled, violent in odd places and seemingly about a Something Bigger that is never completely defined. Here, I’m pretty sure the theme is anti-jerk, pro-truth — that is, anti big business bully, pro hard-drinking but fair-minded newspaperman. And like much of Thompson’s work, that concept sounds just ducky to a journalist — we all, or at least most of the ones I’ve met that are roughly my age and older, seem to go through a Thompson phase. I remember seeing a quote of some other reporter describing Thompson’s style by saying something like “that’s what we’ll all write like after the revolution.” It sounds great — speaking slangy truth to Nixonian power — but can you imagine reading a preview of an upcoming festival or a report from your city council meeting written in that post-hangover style? It would be exhausting to get through one page of newsprint.
And that’s also a little what The Rum Diary is like — an overheated Caribbean experiment that is a little exhausting to get through. Everyone is some kind of character — except the mysterious Chenault, who rather typically (why is it certain men just can’t figure out how to write about women as, like, people?) is like a really beautiful piece of furniture. Every situation is a few steps too crazy. There are laughs, there are moments when you can see how a writer like Kemp could evolve into a writer like Thompson, there is actually a lot of talk about the craft of writing — there is, in short, a lot of stuff here. The Rum Diary is full of stuff and leaves you a bit unsure of what to do with it all.
Depp, perhaps a little old and world-weary for this role, manages to make the performance work in such a way that you can simultaneously enjoy watching what’s happening and feel like you need a shower and a big glass of water. Like a store full of collectibles, everything here is interesting even if it’s not particularly useful. C+
Rated R for language, brief drug use and sexuality. Directed by Bruce Robinson (who also wrote the screenplay based on the Hunter S. Thompson novel), The Rum Diary is two hours long and distributed by FilfmDistrict.