When researching his role in Terry Gilliam’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Johnny Depp unearthed an unpublished manuscript by gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson about his formative years in Puerto Rico in the early 1960s. Not only did Depp manage to get the book published, but has produced a film adaptation, with himself as budding wordsmith Paul Kemp, the thinly veiled Thompson surrogate. Depp also managed to coerce British director Bruce Robinson out of a 17-year retirement to both write and direct. Robinson caught Depp’s attention with his classic 1989 comedy Withnail & I, before quitting the business in 1992 after a terrible experience on Jennifer 8.
Cut from the same cloth as Withnail and Fear and Loathing, the film is less interested in telling a rigorously structured narrative as in recounting the madcap exploits of its intoxicated protagonists. Kemp arrives in Puerto Rico with a fabricated resume and a serious drinking problem, which sets him in good stead for the community of alcoholics, tax dodgers and white-collar criminals he finds there. Before long he has a job at the local rag and has been coerced by the smooth-talking Sanderson (Aaron Eckhart) into giving positive press to a high-level property scam.
To his credit, Kemp is more interested in Sanderson’s girlfriend (Amber Heard) and fellow inebriate Moburg (Giovanni Ribisi), the offer helps fuel his fire of righteousness and find the acerbic voice, for which Thompson would later find acclaim. Though Depp is arguably too old for the part – even if the script does add a few years – he knows precisely how to play him, and given the breathing space to be more libidinous and occasionally sober, Kemp is far more likable than Duke in Fear and Loathing.
As actor/producer, The Rum Diary is very much Depp’s show, but he graciously surrounds himself with a host of quality talent. Eckhart revisits his tobacco lobbyist from Thank You For Smoking to give Sanderson a degree of alluring sleaze, while Richard Jenkins makes for a wonderfully highly-strung and awkwardly tupee-ed editor. Ribisi’s bug-eyed rambling very much foreshadows how Thompson would later become, while Amber Heard is effortlessly radiant as the object of everyone’s affection. Props must also be given to Michael Rispoli as Sala, Kemp’s photographer and partner-in-crime. A successful character performer, Rispoli more than holds his own against the bigger name actors, emerging as one of the more memorable players.
While the film drags somewhat due to its lack of tight plotting, its exotic locations and infectious joie de vivre ensure it’s never less than entertaining. Most of all it is a pleasure to see Depp back playing an edgier, less cartoonish character. While we must acknowledge it is only because of films like Alice in Wonderland that Depp can get projects like The Rum Diary made, but it has become too easy to forget how talented he really is, without the make-up and the Mad Hatter.