THE RUM DIARY is suffused with the warm glow of star Johnny Depps deep and abiding affection for Hunter S. Thompson, the writer of the book on which the film is based, and the model for its protagonist, Kemp, played by Depp himself. Its Depps second time playing Thompson, the first being in Terry Gilliams FEAR AND LOATHING IN LAS VEGAS. That film depicted the mythos that Thompson created for himself, a full-throttle ride through the reality conjured up by Thompsons unparalleled gift for pungent, hyperbolic prose that not only illuminated the inner workings of Thompsons fevered approach to life lived at full throttle and in an alternate but still recognizable reality, but also allowed the reader to understand why that reality was not only preferable, but in its own way, a truer representation of reality itself.
Unlike the earlier film, here Depp, who also co-produced, wants to uncover the man before the myth kicked in, here fictionally rendered as a struggling journalist with two-and-a-half unpublished novels. Landing in San Juan, Puerto Rico, where revolution and corruption simmered together in the hot Caribbean sun of 1960, and Thompson was the only taker for a job at a failing newspaper. Its an interesting idea, but one that is raggedly uneven in its execution. There are several films here, a romance, a social satire, a thriller, a drama on the ills of imperialism, all vying with one another in tone and mood and point and nothing but Depps chameleon-like performance to tie them all together. Alas, it is not enough.
The iconoclastic, bombastic side of Thompson finds an outlet in some of the supporting roles, including an astringently addled turn by Giovanni Ribisi, voice strangling its way through a barbed-wire sieve, as the crime and religion reporter at Kemps paper. There are echoes of future sidekicks in Michael Rispolis unruffled yet rumpled staff photographer with a side in cock fighting and a curiosity about mind-altering substances that matches Kemps. The chronicle of days and nights of surreal adventures, irritating locals, voodoo, and receiving revelations about the cosmos from lobsters, is lively. That and the vitriolic spewing of Kemps ranting with maniacal precision about the status quo make for the best moments of the film. A smooth, white-collar criminal (Aaron Eckhart) with the law in his back pocket and business partners with much to hide and nothing to lose carries the corruption story, yet has no edge to it, though Eckhart exudes the right sort of oily charm as offers Kemp the world on a platter, and an introduction to his fiancee, who is also the woman of Kemps dreams. Amber Heard as the winsome blonde, taunts and teases Kemp with a wicked insouciance that keeps her just out of reach, but not entirely unavailable, and though there are exchanges of sultry looks, there are no fireworks to add the necessary vitality to the romance subplot.
Even the most potentially dramatic moments, fire breathing, machete attacks, and the like, have about them the sense of being muffled in so much cotton batting. There is a finely tuned gift for discovering the small nuance of characters, particularly the peculiar ones, but a languid approach to the larger effort that gives the entire opus a thudding rather than thunderous feel. Fortunately, Depp, like his idol, is incapable of being anything less than arresting in the spotlight, every atom vibrating at its highest and most electric capacity in its own private nirvana,
THE RUM DIARy is too much hagiography, not enough raucous chaos of the type that Thompson so enjoyed both creating and living. It is not as bold as it should be, nor as caustic, nor as anarchic, bogging down in details when broad strokes would better serve the material.