Rum Diary, The

Bruce Robinson’s screen version of “The Rum Diary,” based on the debut novel by the cult figure Hunter S. Thompson, deserves credit for effort and ambition, if not for execution and achievement.

In playing the lead, Johnny Depp adds another panel to his considerable range as an actor, though his interpretation may be too “cool” and “deadpan” (if these are the right words) and his acting may be too minimalist to elicit strong emotional response from viewers, though Depp’s interpretation is in line with Robinson’s overall approach.

For some reason, there has never been a truly successful rendition of any of Thompson’s literary work. In many ways, Robinson’s earnest and restrained approach is exactly the opposite of Terry Gilliam’s dynamic, manic, and stylized version of “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,” in which Johnny Depp also made an appearance though the star was Benicio del Toro.

The main problem of “The Rum Diary,” which has been sitting on the shelves and accumulating dust for a number of years, is its overly episodic structure.  Sharply uneven, the narrative includes many poignant and solidly grounded scenes, but for every fresh and significant sequence, there’s one that’s sluggish and indulgent.  End result is an incoherent film, which often rambles from scene to scene, due to Robinson’s problems with tempo, and doesn’t add up to a more compelling whole.

Just out of the Air Force, and after a stint as a copy boy at “Time Magazine,” aspiring journalist Hunter S. Thompson moved to San Juan, Puerto Rico in 1960, where he initially worked at the sports magazine “El Sportivo,” then unsuccessfully pursued a job at the “San Juan Star.”  The people he met and the experiences he had in Puerto Rico inspired him to write “The Rum Diary,” which remained unpublished for decades.

Depp has been instrumental in making the film.   In the 1990s, as Thompson’s friend, the actor accidentally discovered the manuscript for “The Rum Diary” while visiting Thompson’s house in Woody Creek. That same night they decided to publish the novel and adapt it into a film.  Bruce Robinson, still best known for making the lovely, cult comedy “Withnail & I,” was brought out of retirement by Depp to write the script and direct the film.  

“The Rum Diary” is the first film of Infinitum Nihil, the production company headed by Johnny Depp and Christi Dembrowski, produced in collaboration with Graham King’s production company, GK Films.  Film District will release the film in platform mode on October 28.

No doubt born out of conviction, “The Rum Diary” is a labor of love, a tribute to Thompson as a beloved and admired novelist.  But a labor of love doesn’t always translate into a good or compelling cinema.  And this is certainly the case of “The Rum Diary,” which is a decidedly mixed bag.

In its good moments, which are plentiful, “The Rum Diary” is a sporadically engaging chronicle of Paul Kemp (Depp), an itinerant reporter whose identity (both personal and professional) has not been formed yet.  Tired of the hustle and bustle of the big city—the noise and madness of New York City–and critical (though not an activist) of the conformist ideology and practice of Eisenhower-era America, Kemp is a restless, energetic man, in need of change. 

To that extent, he travels to the pristine island of Puerto Rico to write for a local newspaper, The San Juan Star. Settling into his job, Kemp meets Sala (Michael Rispoli), a talented photographer, and the two become drinking buddies and roommates while working for the failing paper. 

Things change, when Kemp meets and falls in love with Chenault (Amber Heard), the sexy trophy-fiancée of Sanderson (Aaron Eckhart), a rich, corrupt, decadent businessman who lives a lush, stunningly designed house by the sea.

These individuals form a bizarre triangle, whose relationships soon are based on power games and manipulative schemes. Thus, realizing that Kemp could be useful to his business, Sanderson invites the journo to meet with his partners, who are planning to develop luxury hotels and condos on an unspoiled island off the coast.

When Sanderson asks Kemp to write favorably about their development, the journo is initially hesitant, fearing that the deal might be illegal. After a wild night of drinking with Sala and an altercation with the local police, Kemp faces a lengthy jail sentence, and it’s the influential Sanderson who bails him out.

Indebted to this powerful man, Kemp goes along with the crooked proposal.  For his part, Sanderson sweetens the deal by lending Kemp his gorgeous red Corvette, and asking him to pick up Chenault.  It takes just a single drive around the island for Kemp to become smitten and obsessed with the femme fatale.

Kemp’s ambivalence about his assignment grows as Sanderson arranges a tour of the future development. The beauty of the location overwhelms Kemp, and he listens with growing anger as Sanderson reveals his plans to drive out the locals and turn the island into a big, commercially profitable resort.

Sala invites him to Carnival on the island of St. Thomas, where they meet up with Sanderson and a drunk Chenault. The party then moves to a sizzling-hot nightclub where Chenault’s behavior on the dance floor leads to altercation with the locals.

Later, Kemp returns with Sala to his apartment in San Juan where they meet up with Moberg (Giovanni Ribisi), a wild, over-the-edge journalist for The San Juan Star whose life revolves around drugs and alcohol. Moberg introduces them to a hallucinogenic drug, which has an amazing influence on Kemp’s psyche.  Under the influence, he sits down at his typewriter and voices his angry opinions about corruption and greed.

Just when Kemp is ready to print his anti-Sanderson article, Moberg tells him that Lotterman has shut down the newspaper. Kemp then enlists Moberg and Sala to raise money to print one final issue of the paper so he can expose Sanderson’s corruption.

While “The Rum Diary” captures vividly the ambience of Puerto Rico circa 1960—the jazzy, colorful, sleazy night life– before it became a popular touristy spot, the film has harder time reconciling the eccentric behavior of its protagonists with the broader ambition to function as a morality tale.

It’s too bad that the director and his editor did not exercise more discipline in cutting the picture, which overstays its welcome by 20 minutes or so.  

Despite the various shortcomings, however, “The Rum Diary” conveys vivid glimpses into Hunter S. Thompson’s evolving persona as a writer at a crucial time in his life—call it portrait of the artist as a young man.

Indeed, by the time the book was published, however, Thompson’s style had considerably developed from his early writing–returning to his young voice was a challenge. According to Deborah Fuller, who was Thompson’s secretary for 23 years, “an editor from Simon and Schuster worked with Hunter, but they really had to control him. He had evolved into a whole new writer, and he was embarrassed about some of it and wanted to change it. We all told him that was crazy. He wrote it when he was about twenty. To change it and make this young man’s novel more like his later Gonzo-style would have ruined the flavor.”

I realize that my review is mixed and that it might be read as faint praise, and yet I recommend that you see “The Rum Diary,” which, for one thing, is unlike any other film playing right now.

End Note

I am curious to know why producer Johnny Depp chose, of all directors, Bruce Robinson, to tackle this difficult and challenging material.