The Rum Diary: adapted by Bruce Robinson from the novel by Hunter S. Thompson; directed by Bruce Robinson; starring Johnny Depp (Kemp), Michael Rispoli (Sala), Aaron Eckhart (Sanderson), Amber Heard (Chenault), Richard Jenkins (Lotterman), and Giovanni Ribisi (Moberg) (2011): Johnny Depp found Hunter S. Thompson’s unpublished novel in Thompson’s basement in 1997 when Depp was living with Thompson in order to research Depp’s role in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. The novel had been written in the late 1950’s and never published; soon after Depp’s discovery it was published, and Depp spent the next 13 years trying to get a film version made.
With Depp playing the thinly veiled Thompson role of reporter Kemp and Withnail and I writer/director Bruce Robinson handling those same duties here, The Rum Diary ends up being a pretty good film. It also works in a narrative sense, something that other Thompson adaptations and homages have failed to accomplish. It may have helped that the source is a straightforward novel and not something from Thompson’s mature phase of gonzo journalism.
The Rum Diary is shaggy and a bit unfocused, but it also achieves moments of anarchic humour and social commentary as it looks at the stranglehold of American businessmen on Puerto Rico’s affairs in the late 1950’s. Kemp, drunk and occasionally disorderly, is initially apolitical when he’s hired by a Puerto Rican daily as its horoscope writer (!). But things change.
Depp is fine and controlled (maybe a bit too controlled) as Kemp. Michael Rispoli’s Sala, a newspaper photographer, is Kemp’s rumpled, sweaty, well-meaning guide to life on the island. Giovanni Ribisi plays a perpetually drunk, perpetually crusading reporter who fills Kemp in on what’s really going on in between belching fire and hallucinating. Aaron Eckhart is the Ugly American Sanderson, looking for real-estate deals and fencing off beaches from the natives who needs those beaches to fish and catch lobsters. Sanderson’s wife, played by Amber Heard as a dissatisfied trophy wife, soon becomes a love interest for Kemp.
The newspaper, corrupt at the top, won’t report on anything worth reporting; Sanderson wants Kemp as a glorified brochure writer to help seal a real-estate deal. Voodoo, drugs, and fist fights will soon result. Expensive hotels will rise where once people lived. Americans will flock to Puerto Rico to gamble and…go bowling? And Kemp will finally figure out what he’s supposed to write about, and why, and most importantly how. Do you smell that? It’s the smell of bastards. Also the truth. It’s the smell of ink. Recommended.