REVIEW: Johnny Depp Channels an Urbane, Dissolute Hunter S. Thompson in The Rum Diary
After years of watching Johnny Depp give performances from behind thick rings of pirate eyeliner or masks of outlandish Tim Burton makeup, it's a relief to see him, more and more often these days, acting with nothing but his real face. In Bruce Robinson's The Rum Diary -- liberally adapted from Hunter S. Thompson's novel -- Depp plays a wayfaring, hard-drinking journalist, Paul Kemp, who has drifted to Puerto Rico, circa 1960, where he lands a job at a floundering, two-bit newspaper, The San Juan Star. Its editor, played by a cigar-chomping Richard Jenkins, hires him reluctantly; never mind that he was the only person who applied for the job.
Kemp quickly falls in with an equally dissolute colleague at the paper, Sala (a whiskery, appealing Michael Rispoli). But in between bouts of drinking and attending cockfights, he's still able to detect, through his fuzzy, alcohol-fueled vision, the disparity between the rich and poor on the island. "You have to check into a hotel just to see the ocean," he reflects at one point. Nonetheless, he manages to fall in with corrupt real-estate wheeler-dealer Sanderson (Aaron Eckhart), who has plans to develop luxury hotels on an unspoiled island. Sanderson hopes to get Kemp to write favorably about this shady enterprise, which Kemp refuses to do -- until he lands in a bind that Sanderson helps him wriggle out of. After that, he feels indebted to the creep; a further complication is that he's fallen hard for Sanderson's fiancée, a tough but juicy little peach named Chenault (Amber Heard, who makes a great, glamorous moll).
Even if Thompson's novel -- which he began in 1959 but which wasn't published until the late '90s -- contains some obvious biographical elements, Depp doesn't play Kemp as a rehash of Raoul Duke, the Thompson stand-in he played in Terry Gilliam's 1998 Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Depp's Kemp is one part smooth and urbane, one part down and dirty: He looks equally at home zipping around San Juan, dressed in a neat sports jacket and dapper Panama, or crawling his way out of bar-room brawl. In the movie's opening scene, he stands semi-naked in the middle of a trashed hotel room, sporting a burst blood vessel in his left eye and looking a bit like a stunned raccoon. But even when he's making an unglamorous entrance like this one, Depp has star charisma to spare, and his deadpan demeanor only adds to his allure. In the middle of that trashed room is a wrecked mini-bar; unable to find its tiny key, Kemp had tried to smash it open. When he's confronted by the stunned room-service guy, he explains dryly, "I was looking for some nuts. I tend to avoid alcohol."
Robinson -- who directed the 1987 Withnail & I, and who wrote the screenplay for The Killing Fields -- has fashioned The Rum Diary into a rambling entertainment that ultimately doesn't have enough punch. The picture has a low-key, shoulder-shrugging quality; even though it's nicely shot by DP Dariusz Wolski, who avails himself of all the tropical colors on offer, The Rum Diary ultimately leaves a blurry and indistinct impression, as if it somehow lost its sense of direction on the way to its ending.
Then again, maybe that's Thompson for you: The picture at least has some pleasant, shambling energy. We also have Depp to thank for the fact that it exists at all: Depp, who was friends with Thompson, was visiting the larger-than-life journalist at his home in Woody Creek when he came across the unfinished manuscript for The Rum Diary. He urged Thompson to publish the book, hoping to make a movie out of it. Thompson died in 2005, but Depp, who has a producer's credit on the film, has at last been able to make good on his promise. The Rum Diary may not be straight-up Thompson. But at least it's wily and mischievous enough to count as Thompson on the rocks.
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