The Rum Diary (2011)
In San Juan, on the Road to Gonzo
By A. O. SCOTT
“The Rum Diary,” directed by Bruce Robinson (“Withnail and I”) and based on an early novel of the same title by Hunter S. Thompson, will appeal to anyone who harbors romantic ideas about liquor, newspaper journalism or that mythical late-Eisenhower, early-Kennedy “Mad Men” time when the ’60s were getting ready to happen. Connoisseurs of straw hats and cool sunglasses will find much to savor, as will aficionados of guilt-free cigarette smoking and midday boozing.
A mild lark disguised as a wild bender, “The Rum Diary” is also a touching tribute to Thompson himself, who committed suicide in 2005. Thompson’s alter ego, a young writer named Paul Kemp, is played by Johnny Depp. This makes the new film a prequel of sorts to Terry Gilliam’s “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” (1998), in which Mr. Depp impersonated Thompson in his full Gonzo glory, with Hawaiian-print shirts draped over his torso and wild hallucinations sprouting from his balding pate.
Kemp is, at least at first glance, a more conventional fellow, arriving at his new job at an English-language San Juan daily, in the grip of a serious hangover but otherwise more presentable than some of his colleagues.
These include a burly, shaggy photographer named Bob Sala (Michael Rispoli) and a filthy, booze-addled wraith known as Moberg (Giovanni Ribisi). The two of them become Paul’s roommates and co-conspirators in a rambling adventure that pits them, somewhat woozily, against the editor of their newspaper (Richard Jenkins) and a cabal of neocolonialist real estate developers.
This is not really “Fear and Loathing in Puerto Rico” but rather the literary equivalent of a superhero origin story, in that it supplies fans with the chronicle of how a more-or-less ordinary guy transformed himself into a beloved archetype. “I haven’t figured out how to write as myself,” Paul says at one point, and as he chafes against the requirements of his job and the foul corruption of his environment, he is also undergoing the testing ordeal that will ultimately give him a voice and a vocation.
His nemesis — every superhero needs one — is Hal Sanderson (Aaron Eckhart), a great white sharpie who seems to possess everything Paul desires. Hal, a flack for the predatory, moneyed interests who want to despoil a pristine island, has a luxurious house on the beach, a sweet red sports car and a sexy fiancée named Chenault (Amber Heard) who seems to have eyes for Paul. Hal also sees Paul as a target for seduction, offering him a vaguely defined but apparently crucial role in his lucrative development scheme. Paul’s journalistic skills and connections (especially if he’s spuriously identified as a correspondent for an important mainland paper) will be an asset.
And so Paul’s drunken meanderings lead him to a crossroad, with Hal and Moberg representing opposed, cautionary visions of a plausible future. With his talent and looks, his good breeding and passable manners, Paul could easily sell out and settle into a version of Hal’s cushy, corrupt existence. Or if his taste for alcohol overtakes him — he rates his drinking “at the higher end of social” — he could end up a wasted wreck like his colleague.
Instead, of course, he turns into Hunter S. Thompson, an evolution foreshadowed throughout “The Rum Diary” in ways that will delight Thompson devotees. Sala, good-hearted and oddly practical in spite of himself, is a prototype of Dr. Gonzo, the bulky lawyer who would be Sancho to Thompson’s Quixote in “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.” Paul’s comments as he watches Richard M. Nixon and John F. Kennedy debate on television prefigure both the Nixon hatred that would be one of Thompson’s great passions and the mix of prophecy and paranoia that would characterize his political writing. “The Irishman will win,” he predicts. “But they won’t let him live.”
In the course of a narrative that both steers toward and swerves away from a beat-the-bad-guys, get-the-girl ending, Kemp locates his ethical center of gravity, recovers his chivalrous instincts and reconciles his appetites with his awakening sense of mission. “What did we take?” he asks, after he and Sala have dosed themselves with a powerful and unnamed hallucinogen. “We’ll need to get some more!” Later he declares, “I put the bastards of the world on notice that I do not have their best interests at heart.” Together those statements might stand as a précis of the vivid and improbable real career that took shape after the fictional events depicted in this film.
Which on balance is more a confirmation of existing legends than a revelation. Mr. Depp, drawing in his mouth and lowering the register of his voice, is reliably unpredictable and predictably cool, but as is so often the case lately, he seems to be acting from behind the mask of his own charisma. Ms. Heard does what she can to overcome the essentially decorative nature of her part, while most of the rest of the cast does whatever mugging or ranting seems appropriate. The exception is Mr. Rispoli, whose sweaty, anxious geniality is the most interesting and authentic thing in the movie. The rest is pleasant enough, which may sound more damning than I mean it to, given Thompson’s reputation.
“The Rum Diary” is rated R (Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian). Sex, drugs, profanity, drinking — what part of “Hunter S. Thompson” did you not understand?
THE RUM DIARY
Opens on Friday nationwide.
Written and directed by Bruce Robinson, based on the novel by Hunter S. Thompson; director of photography, Dariusz Wolski; edited by Carol Littleton; production design by Chris Seagers; costumes by Colleen Atwood; produced by Graham King and Tim Headington; released by Film District. Running time: 2 hours.
WITH: Johnny Depp (Kemp), Aaron Eckhart (Sanderson), Michael Rispoli (Sala), Amber Heard (Chenault), Richard Jenkins (Lotterman), Giovanni Ribisi (Moburg), Amaury Nolasco (Segurra), Marshall Bell (Donovan), Bill Smitrovich (Mr. Zimburger) and Julian Holloway (Wolsley).