For those expecting Fear and Loathing in Puerto Rico from Johnny Depp’s latest foray into the literary world of late gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson, you’re only given a taste in The Rum Diary.
But what you do get is an exploration of exploitation and that helps one writer find his soul and voice. With a propensity for dragging at points in the film, Rum is certainly an acquired taste as trying to find the narrative and and common ground with the main character, journalist Paul Kemp (Depp), takes some time.
The movie, which is based on a novel of life as a newspaper reporter in San Juan, Puerto Rico in 1960, plays like an unedited, rambling piece at times and just when you think it’s wandered off in a drunken stupor, something happens to snap it back into place.
Thompson wrote the book at the age of 22 and it unfolds that way, but it wasn’t published until 1998. Depp got it made as a tribute to the Rolling Stone writer and novelist.
But as adapted by director-writer Bruce Robinson, there is some parallel to modern times to be mined in Rum’s wandering narrative.
Kemp arrives in San Juan reeking of booze and perfume and finds himself working at the Star, the local newspaper where he’s relegated to writing horoscopes and doing stories about tourists who come to paradise for bowling. Yes, seriously.
His do-nothing, care-about-nothing editor Lotterman (Richard Jenkins of Step Brothers) offers little in the way of support and the pay sucks, leading him to fall in with a sleazy P.R. guy, Sanderson (Aaron Eckhart) who is only interested in pure profit and exploiting the natives to make it. Of course, he’s a guy who has to possess the most beautiful girl, Chenault (Amber Heard) on the island.
The lifestyle of yachts, beach homes and a seemingly neverending supply of cash sucks Kemp in – after all, he’s only human. But he eventually has to ask himself “at what cost?”
The journey to answer that question is sprinkled with humorous and sometimes uproarious moments, but they may be too far and in between for many.
What’s worthy of relishing in The Rum Diary are the performances, including Depp channeling Thompson in some respects. He’s roguish, rebellious, intelligent and funny as he and his buddies amble their way through the island’s political network and culture.
Joining him: Michael Rispoli as Sala, a photographer for the paper, and a fellow writer, Moburg, portrayed by an almost incomprehensible, but incredibly hilarious Giovanni Ribisi (Avatar). Their easy natured acting triumverate make The Rum Diary an ode to drunken revelry with a higher purpose.
There’s little wrong with director Robinson’s eye as we see Puerto Rico in all of its lush, tropical glory and it’s clear that he loves the U.S. territory. Where the primary problem comes with Rum is the film’s pacing. Very uneven in some spots, watching it requires patience. Ultimately, however, the payoff is worth it.
Movie: The Rum Diary
Director: Bruce Robinson
Cast: Johnny Depp, Aaron Eckhart, Giovanni Ribisi, Michael Rispoli and Amber Heard.
Rated: R(language, brief drug use and sexuality)
Running time: 119 minutes
George’s rating: 3.5-of-5 stars
Check for theaters and showtimes at Atlas Cinemas, Cleveland Cinemas, Fandango.com and MovieTickets.com