One thing (among thousands) you can say about Johnny Depp: he’s loyal to his friends, to the point of veneration. He was the driving force behind Hunter S. Thompson’s The Rum Diary, rescuing the never-finished 1959 novel from the author’s basement while researching his role as Thompson himself in Terry Gilliam’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.
Depp helped prod the book into print and now, six years after Thompson’s death, he plays the novel’s vaguely autobiographical hero, a rum-swilling journalist on the verge of going Gonzo while working for an about-to-fold rag in Puerto Rico. The film is an unabashed homage, and you have to wonder if Depp’s deep affection blinded him to everything that was going wrong. The Rum Diary is something you would never associate with Thompson: sluggish.
It all sounds good on paper, including Depp’s maneuver to get Bruce Robinson (who knows something about wayward heroes from Withnail and I) to write and direct. And the film looks great, with bright, hyperreal colors that reflect its retro setting and exaggerated story.
The hero, named Paul Kemp, wakes with a blistering hangover and heads to the office of the San Juan Star where he meets his new editor, Lotterman, a man devoted to mediocrity. In one of the film’s bright spots, Richard Jenkins plays the toupeed, ridiculous Lotterman with comic flair and conviction.
Kemp moves into a ramshackle apartment with his new best friend, the paper’s seedy but goodhearted photographer, Sala (Michael Rispoli). And he accidentally uncovers a plot by a developer to destroy a swath of naturally beautiful beach. Aaron Eckhart is smooth but not challenged as the handsome sleaze, whose fiancee (Amber Heard) is clearly more interested in Kemp.
There are drunken nights and seductions and police chases, but every one of those episodes sits like a lump of clay on the screen. If ever a scene demanded manic energy, it’s one in which Kemp and Sala turn into human fire-breathers, blowing their alcohol-infused breath across a flame to scare off the police in pursuit. Yet even that feels plodding and by-the-numbers.
The film’s few sparks of energy come from the occasional gleam in Depp’s eye. But a little reverence is a dangerous thing. Robinson directs so earnestly he might be adapting A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man instead of early Hunter Thompson. No one involved seems to realize that they have to make us interested in the Thompson character, not assume we’ll instantly adore him as they do.
Whether you love Thompson or not, you’d be much better off re-watching Fear and Loathing, a suitably off-the-wall, high-energy tribute.
The Rum Diary opens on Friday.