Beer and bloating
Episodic adventure is fairly gonzo, but misses narrative mark
Johnny Depp played Hunter S. Thompson in Terry Gilliam’s 1998 film version of that writer’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, and now he’s playing another version of that character in Bruce Robinson’s movie version of Thompson’s novel The Rum Diary.
Depp is certainly the right man for the job, not least because of his long-term commitment to keep Thompson’s gonzo-author banner flying. And Robinson, writer-director of absurdist road-movie classic Withnail & I (1987), is pretty clearly a kindred spirit as well.
On the big screen, however, The Rum Diary only intermittently makes good on the quirky promises in its various pedigrees. There’s plenty of gonzo funk on this movie’s menu—a set of bizarre characters and assorted picaresque misadventures—but this picture has neither the crazed energy of Fear and Loathing nor the rambunctious pathos of Withnail & I.
The main setting is Puerto Rico in the politically fraught year of 1960. Paul Kemp (Depp) is a wildly alcoholic journalist who has come to take a job on the San Juan Star, an English-language newspaper that’s on the verge of financial collapse. At least a couple of his new colleagues surpass him in the pursuit of wretched excess, and Kemp veers into an adjacent set of misadventures when he enters the orbit of a corrupt American deal-maker (Aaron Eckhart) and his lithe blonde girlfriend Chenault (Amber Heard).
The overall story arc, such as it is, has Kemp moving from bummed-out itinerant writer to would-be crusading journalist, but the main onscreen action is in a mélange of semi-disconnected episodes—a sexual idyll in the Caribbean, an acid trip reduced to oral/phallic hallucination, an encounter with a hermaphrodite witch doctor, a clandestine scheme to convert a tropical island from a weapons-testing site to a tourist destination, a juke-joint brouhaha during Carnival in St. Thomas, glimpses of Puerto Rican rebels and the 1960 presidential race (Kennedy-Nixon).
Robinson and company seem content to let all this play out without anything more than lip-service coherence, but that comes to feel more and more like cynical indifference as the narrative limps along. The off-screen happy ending signaled by title cards before the final credits bears no conviction, ironic or otherwise.
Depp’s deadpan performance doesn’t help much. Michael Rispoli is good as a roistering photojournalist. Giovanni Ribisi is merely weird as a zonked-out crime reporter who parades around like some kind of derelict prophet.