The stench of cheap booze, stale cigarettes, newsprint and pre-air- conditioning sweat wafts off the screen in The Rum Diary, Johnny Depp's second tribute to his friend, the late journalist and fellow Kentucky native Hunter S. Thompson.
Although it rarely reaches the level of gonzo farce it might have, The Rum Diary is an agreeably drunken stagger through the novel Thompson based on his formative year as a writer, 1960, which he spent drunk, getting into trouble and first tangling with "The Man" in Puerto Rico.
Paul Kemp (Depp, who was born in Owensboro) has come for a job interview at the San Juan Star. He has made a bad impression by being late and seriously hung over for his meeting with the editor, Lotterman (Richard Jenkins).
Writer-director Bruce Robinson (Withnail and I) packs the script with pithy Thompson-isms, hurling many of them at us in this opening scene. Puerto Rico, with its two languages and two flags, is "like England with tropical fruit," Lotterman explains.
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Kemp's cynicism (he's a failed novelist) works its way into his stories, the bowling alley tourists who are "beasts of obesity ... Great Whites ... gluttons" and "locusts." He has to learn that "nobody wants what's wrong with the place," and if not from Lotterman, perhaps from Kemp's cynical colleagues, roommates and fellow drunks — photographer Bob Sala (Michael Rispoli, pretty good) or columnist-on-a-bender Moberg (Giovanni Ribisi, way out there).
Oily press agent Sanderson (Aaron Eckhart) sells Kemp on Puerto Rico's place in the American Dream, which became a running obsession with Thompson. The island is "a gold mine" thanks "to something that doesn't exist: land."
Kemp listens to Sanderson because the guy offers to pay him off and because Sanderson has a gorgeous blond girlfriend, perfectly embodied by Amber Heard.
Ribisi as Moberg is almost a Thompson prototype — ever blitzed, always in sunglasses, stealing soaked filters from the Bacardi rum factory to distill his own high-test brew. He staggers everywhere, rages at authority and listens to old Hitler speeches on the phonograph.
The class and racial tensions of the island make an impression on Kemp, who sees unfettered capitalism's consequences in every "private" beach, every back-room land deal, every hostile look from an impoverished local.
There is little that we don't see coming — cops and cockfights, flirtations and drug trips. Depp, 48, is entirely too old to be a coming-of-age journalist. (Thompson, who was born and grew up in Louisville, was 21 or 22 while he was there.) But Depp makes this work by suggesting a burn-out case in need of a second chance, world-weary enough to recognize the ethical temptations of the job and the alcoholic temptations of the island.
The Rum Diary is worthy because it's just plain fun to watch the actor who so nailed Thompson in the cult hit Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998) work through the earlier version of what would become Thompson's obsessions: Nixon, who "lies like he breathes," hallucinogens and writing "the truth," as he sees it. As a vanity project, this a perfectly passable valentine to Hunter S. Thompson.