Johnny Depp returns as another of Hunter S. Thompson’s creations, keeping the Gonzo journalist alive to drink another day.
It has been a long time between drinks for Bruce Robinson, a claim that could not be made by the late and iconoclastic Gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson. After creating the cult classic Withnail & I in 1987, Robinson’s How to Get Ahead in Advertising and Jennifer 8 were critical disappointments, leading Robinson off into the wilderness. Two decades later, he is back in the director’s chair with an adaptation of one of Thompson’s earliest novels.
Paul Kemp (Johnny Depp) is a wandering journalist who lands in Puerto Rico to write for The San Juan Star. Frequently inebriated on rum and his itinerant lifestyle, Kemp becomes involved in the business enterprises of Hal Sanderson (Aaron Eckhart), and infatuated with his Sanderson’s fiancée Chenault (Amber Heard). Kemp and his newspaper comrade Sala (Michael Rispoli) are soon in trouble with the locals, the paper is on the rocks and the shady dealings of Sanderson land Kemp in more hot water.
Johnny Depp returns to the world of close friend Hunter S. Thompson, the pair frequently collaborating prior to the latter’s death in 2005. Having previously played the older Thompson, or at least his alter-ego Raoul Duke, in Terry Gilliam’s adaptation of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Depp slides effortless into Kemp. Taking a perpetually inebriated note from his Jack Sparrow character, mixed with a healthy dose of drug-fuelled bravado and a lost boy spirit, Depp’s ability is to weave the essential character details into a role with a history we may never learn, but is nevertheless present in every moment on camera. Although there is ostensibly a character arc for Depp, we forever get the impression he will ever learn nothing from his experiences.
Surrounded by a cast of increasingly eccentric characters, Depp’s idiosyncratic quirks seem tame in comparison to the madhouse that surrounds him. Unlike Raoul Duke, Depp is almost the wingman to the hedonistic Sala, who is forever picking fights with locals and showing scant regard to automotive safety. Yet as with this year’s Contraband, it is Giovanni Ribisi who takes crazy up a notch with the unhinged Moberg, a gravelly voiced sometimes-journalist who subsists on 470 proof alcohol and audio recordings of Adolf Hitler’s speeches.
Where The Rum Diary falls down is its lack of narrative focus, often feeling like a short film stretched out into feature proportions, or too little story spread thin over a full two hours. All the elements are there, but it’s a greatest hits package from Thompson’s novel rather than cohesive story. Figures and events drift in and out of Kemp’s field of vision, like so many miniature bottles of rum washed up on the shore, once individually filled with substance but collectively empty and fragile.
The Rum Diary is released in Australia on 15 March 2012 from Fox.