This film from Bruce Robinson, director of possibly the definitive cult classic Withnail and I, working for the first time since 1992, was adapted from an early Hunter S Thompson novel that remained unpublished for years and plays out like a spiritual prequel to Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, another Thompson adap that also starred Johnny Depp.
The Rum Diary’s plot mirrors a similar episode in Thompson’s own life as it follows Paul Kemp (Depp), a failed novelist with an inconvenient habit of drinking to absolute excess and his relocation to Puerto Rico to work on a local rag. He soon shacks up with an in-house photographer with a side line in cockfighting (Michael Risposi) and an absolute mess of a politics and religious affairs correspondent (Giovanni Ribisi). Together they indulge in light-hearted debauchery while their paper struggles and their editor (Richard Jenkins) tears his hair out (or has it torn out for him).
Meanwhile Kemp is courted by a high-flying property developer (Aaron Eckhart) who employs him to write favourable pieces about his latest business venture which gives Kemp plenty of time to get to know his flirty siren of a girlfriend (Amber Heard). It’s a mishmash of autobiographical drama, trippy comedy and gritty depiction of an island ‘paradise’.
And it’s a mishmash that isn’t entirely successful. True there’s plenty to enjoy from the characters’ often hilarious drug and booze-addled antics (particularly one incident that casts Depp as a human flamethrower) and the characters are mostly well-conceived and convincing but the plot strands mostly meander into insignificance and there’s little by way of Fear and Loathing style drug trips to enjoy. The most interesting thing about the film is probably its convincing and fascinating depiction of Puerto Rico in the late 1950s, a place of belligerent bar owners, crazed zombie women and endless tourist bowling alleys.
It’s an interesting indicator of the kind of weirdoes that Depp usually plays that this is one of his straightest performances. He’s clearly very comfortable with the Thompsonian dialogue (actually the director wrote the screenplay but managed to imitate the late author’s style successfully), but the character seems a little bland compared to his two buddies who are far more vividly played. The rest of the cast including Eckhart and Heard sell their parts of the plot well.
Neither triumph nor disaster with nothing to elevate it to the kind of cult classic status enjoyed by Withnail and I but far from unentertaining.