Snapshots from the rum haze

Michael Phillips | Boulder Weekly

Johnny Depp was a pal of the late Hunter S. Thompson, and the frustrating but thickly atmospheric film version of Thompson’s early novel The Rum Diary finds Depp and writer/director Bruce Robinson paying tribute to the author, freelance gonzo journalist, career substance ingester and lifelong alcohol sponge.

The undertaking was a labor of love. The results are more a labor of “like, in parts,” but they certainly don’t resemble anything else on screen at the moment.

Thompson wrote The Rum Diary in 1959. For a brief spell he resided in Puerto Rico, living hard and fast in Bacardiville, writing for a rag called El Sportivo and attempting, and failing, to find work at the English-language San Juan Star.

Out of these facts came Thompson’s wish-fulfillment novel, in which the autobiographical figure, Paul Kemp, is a Star reporter who falls in with the lover of a ruthless American developer.

Robinson streamlines the character roster so that Kemp’s adventures provide the through-line, led by his Don Quixote/Sancho Panza routine with his confidant and conscience, the photojournalist Sala (Michael Rispoli). The writer-director of The Rum Diary is best known for the worst-vacation ever classic Withnail & I, which is practically a religion in England and has its ardent fans (including me) here in America. Robinson has directed only three films since then, the last “unmentionable” one (Robinson’s own description) being Jennifer 8, nearly 20 years ago.

At its best, the fractious Withnail magic resurfaces in the sunnier climes of The Rum Diary. Shot on loca tion in Puerto Rico, the film scampers after Depp’s reporter (his editor is played by Richard Jenkins, in the world’s finest lousy toupee) as he tests his ethics against those of the developer, played by Aaron Eckhart, and the developer’s thrill-seeking mistress, played by Amber Heard.

There isn’t a sophisticated or “adult” perspective to be found in The Rum Diary. Though made by seasoned pros, it derives from a novel written by Hunter when he was a veteran hellion of 22. Depp brings everything he can to the role, except the raw-youth part. (If only he’d made it around the time he made the film version of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas!) It’s evident Depp shot The Rum Diary in the wake of his Pirates of the Caribbean juggernaut — some of the double takes he owes to Jack Sparrow and no one else. It’s equally evident Depp’s amusement and engagement with scoundrels and rakes of all types can anchor even a wobbly film.

The best thing that can come out of The Rum Diary? Another project for Bruce Robinson, that’s what.

—MCT, Tribune Media Service Respond: