Audiences didn’t exactly flock to see Johnny Depp play Hunter S. Thompson 13 years ago, when Terry Gilliam released his hyperactive adaptation of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. But Depp and Thompson became fast friends, and the former was instrumental in persuading the latter to finally publish The Rum Diary, a novel Thompson wrote in the early ’60s that had been rejected multiple times and then shelved. And now here comes Depp again, playing Thompson in spirit if not in name, and doing his utmost to sell us on the scuzzy romance of blackout alcoholism and the complete absence of inhibition. I’m still not buying it.
Dialing it down considerably from his previous incarnation (which was arguably more cartoonish than Rango), and ignoring the inconvenient fact that he’s two decades older than the character as written, Depp plays newshound Paul Kemp, just arrived in Puerto Rico in 1960 to work at the San Juan Star. Not that very much journalism gets done, at least initially—the movie’s first half consists largely of a string of disconnected, booze-fueled adventures (the drugs come later), as Kemp cavorts around town with a couple of wacky colleagues (Michael Rispoli and Giovanni Ribisi) and fends off the demands of an American businessman (Aaron Eckhart) who wants to plant a favorable story about a real-estate swindle. The latter development provides both the eventual semblance of a plot, as our hero gradually grows a political conscience, and busty eye candy in the form of the businessman’s girlfriend (Amber Heard).
Written and directed by Bruce Robinson (Withnail & I, How to Get Ahead in Advertising), returning to movies after a 19-year hiatus, The Rum Diary avoids the grotesque excesses of Gilliam’s effort, but it doesn’t replace them with anything substantially more compelling. Individual bits and pieces amuse (particularly a memorably erotic Carnival interlude), but the movie, like its predecessor, never quite takes shape, merely presenting one disreputable escapade after another until it’s time for Kemp to take a stand. And despite his personal connection to the project, Depp seems strangely subdued—almost comatose at times. It’s as if the movie itself suffers from a hangover.