From Mardi Gras to the backstreets, The Rum Diary captures a postcard feel for a lost era.
Johnny Depp’s always had a thing for Hunter S Thompson. Who could forget his bonkers turn as the cult writer (fictionalised as Raoul Duke) in Fear And Loathing in Las Vegas? As such there's always the worry that this passion project – produced by Depp, written and directed by an ‘out of retirement’ Bruce Robinson – might idolise but not inspire.
Thankfully, the gonzo is all good. Depp's incarnation of Thompson's alter ego Paul Kemp is suitably sozzled with a "tongue like a towel" and this colourful yarn is a joy from start to finish.
Charting his experiences as a journalist on failing rag 'The San Juan Star' in early '60s Puerto Rico, Thompson’s novel 'The Rum Diary' remained unpublished until 1998, when Depp persuaded his old buddy to change his mind. Though Hunter didn’t live to see the film, Depp is sure "he’d be whooping" with a tale that celebrates his language and the discovery of his voice.
Yet, compared to his drug-addled compadres, Depp’s the straight man around whom the action revolves in this tale of a novelist with writer's block blagging his way as a hack.
San Juan appears as a shining playground for rich Yanks where life is hard for the locals. The coastal setting and period dressing for this $45 million adaptation are sumptuous, but as Kemp's sidekick Sala grunts, "This place is like someone you fucked and they're still under ya!" Michael Rispoli delivers a ragged charm as photographer Sala, who introduces Kemp to a world of cock-fighting, car chases and heavy drinking, while dodging the radar of toupe-wearing editor-on-the-verge-of-a-nervous breakdown Richard Jenkins.
In a noirish twist, Kemp's head is turned by the promise of big bucks from shady PR man Aaron Eckhart and his loins stirred by exuberant seductress Amber Heard. Elsewhere, Giovanni Ribisi nails a bizarre turn as a crime-correspondent-come-lounge-lizard extolling the virtues of quaffing 470 proof ethanol (think an American version of Richard E Grant’s Withnail).
The slapstick psychedelia of LSD ingested via the eyelids hints at the counter culture Thompson would later spearhead, as Kemps’ idealistic crusade to expose corruption on the island fuels the narrative of a film beautifully shot in 16mm. From Mardi Gras to the backstreets, The Rum Diary captures a postcard feel for a lost era.
Will Depp’s vision of Hunter S Thompson’s novel idolise or inspire?
Crazy, cool and very funny.
A rare glimpse into the mind of the gonzo writer and among Depp’s best work.