Movie review: ‘The Rum Diary’

“The Rum Diary,” starring Johnny Depp as Paul Kemp, a thinly disguised young Hunter S. Thompson, chronicles the legendary journalist’s booze-soaked months in 1960s’ Puerto Rico in his pre-Gonzo days, when he was a writer still struggling to find his voice, worried that he might not actually have one.

The voice issue is what troubles the film as well, but in more significant ways — Thompson found his, “Rum Diary” never does. That might have been a death sentence for the movie had not Depp been in such good form.

Written and directed by Bruce Robinson, the story begins with blinding sunshine, a beautiful beach and a very bad hangover for Kemp (Depp), who’s just about to start a new job at the local English-language newspaper in San Juan. The hotel room is a disaster, but then apparently that’s what happens when one brawls with a mini bar whose key has gone missing.

In the film and the Thompson novel on which it is based, Puerto Rico is a nation on the cusp. The narrative takes us on a breezy spin through its despoiling, as the island goes from poverty-ridden but pristine tropical paradise to a blighted Eden with refineries polluting the oceans and hotels and casinos choking the beaches. Rum, lots of it, made being there more bearable for the likes of Kemp.

Aaron Eckhart (“Thank You for Smoking”) is Sanderson, a PR slick who greases the wheels, and the palms, around town, putting the right people together to make the country’s transition to cosmopolitan hub profitable, albeit painful. That’s one side of Kemp’s new world order.


The other is in the grumbling bowels of the paper with Lotterman (Richard Jenkins sporting a bad rug and desperation) as its beleaguered editor. The newsroom is filled with reprobates, most notably Moburg (Giovanni Ribisi), the religion/crime writer who hasn’t seen a sober day in, well, no one remembers, and Sala (Michael Rispoli), who sweats even when it isn’t hot and is forever making plans to leave.

Complicating matters is Sanderson’s girl, a beautiful blond enigma named Chenault (Amber Heard channeling ‘50s bruised bombshell with power). Churning up friction in the streets are the Puerto Ricans increasingly displaced and losing their grip on the country. Kemp is the man in the middle, the cool center in the growing chaos with everything collapsing around him.

In every move, Depp makes you believe this was a passion project for the actor, one he dedicates to Thompson. You can see it as he turns down the mania of the Thompson he portrayed in Terry Gilliam’s “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” in 1998, to create a man made more genteel and more introspective by his youth and insecurities.

“Rum Diary” also seemed a natural fit for Robinson, though it required luring the screenwriter back into the director’s chair after considerable time away. Having launched his career with his own counterculture manifesto, exposing the drug- and flea-infested British Bohemian underbelly in 1987’s “Withnail & I,” Robinson was something of a kindred spirit to the authority-bashing Thompson.

But with Robinson melding Thompson’s characters, streamlining story lines, adding others, the novel’s essential power has been lost in translation. Where Thompson gave us skillfully observed substance, Robinson gives us well-crafted veneer. That comes as a surprise given the achingly intelligent feel for the material Robinson displayed in his Oscar-nominated screenplay for “The Killing Fields,” for example.

Still, the film is beautifully rendered. Shot on location and better for it, “Rum Diary” director of photography Dariusz Wolski’s (“Pirates of the Caribbean” “Alice in Wonderland”) lens makes Puerto Rico itself one of the main attractions, with endless beaches and a deep blue sea, a weathered city feeling its decay, new construction sites breaking the horizon, lush plant life pressing all around. Even the poverty has an appeal.

Likewise, the various production teams have managed to turn back the clock to beautiful effect, from those linen suits that carry wrinkles so well, especially when they are hanging off the shoulders of Eckhart and Depp, to the vintage cars that include a pivotal 1959 red Chevy Corvette. It all serves as a seductive invitation to follow the various parties as they party around the clock — in high rises, dive bars, street carnivals, bowling alleys — it literally never stops.

Against that very busy canvas, Depp quietly paints Kemp’s many interior occupations — the journalist observing the scene, taking it all in, ruminating, then struggling to putting it all down in words. It just isn’t quite enough to take off the rough edge — for that, I guess, there is always the rum.