2011 could use Hunter S. Thompson. The greed, the fraud, the hypocrisy; that’s what Thompson’s gonzo journalism was all about. So the timing is certainly right for an adaptation of “The Rum Diary,” Thompson’s 1998 novel about his time raking through the muck of corrupt 1950s Puerto Rico. It’s just the wan execution that’s wrong.
Johnny Depp returns to the role of Thompson, one he played to great comedic effect in Terry Gilliam’s delightfully deranged film adaptation of “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.” There he was Thompson as cartoon character — a lysergically-fueled tornado of flailing limbs and blistering prose. “The Rum Diary” presents Thompson — a.k.a. Paul Kemp — as matinee idol. He’s looking sharp in period suit and sunglasses, with his hair at its most handsomely Deppiest — either perfectly slicked into a small pompadour or perfectly tousled into a droopy curl. Depp does a little of his signature mugging but mostly he’s the straight man in this story: the incredulous observer of crooked newspaper editors, unscrupulous land barons, and hermaphroditic witchdoctors. Given the time period and the reverence with which Depp and the film hold Thompson’s words and ideals, “The Rum Diary” feels a little like a super-hero origin story. You’ve seen the guy at his apex of his powers. Now see how he got them.
Unfortunately, as is the case in most prequels, the backstory is a lot less juicy than the story. Kemp — who describes his drinking habit as existing “at the upper edge of social” — is the only applicant for a job at a crumbling Puerto Rican newspaper. His editor, Lotterman (Richard Jenkins, hamming it up in an intentionally bad toupée), assigns him to replace the recently deceased horoscope writer (he was, Lotterman warns, “raped to death”). Kemp wants to write about the protests against the island’s wealthy American elites but is rebuffed because bad news is bad for business. So he’s sent to cover bowling alley openings instead. That sort of thing didn’t start with Occupy Wall Street, you see.
Kemp’s writing brings him to the attention of one of those wealthy American elites, a real estate developer named Sanderson (Aaron Eckhart) who is clearly evil because he a)dresses all in white and b)smokes big cigars. He wants Kemp to help some shady investors turn a nearby island into the next Caribbean vacation destination. Kemp winds up fighting to keep these rich dudes’ hands off that private Caribbean island, which is kind of hilarious when you remember that in real life Depp IS the rich dude who’s got his hands on a private Caribbean island. Hooray for Hollywood!
For a a while, Kemp does go along with the scheme, mostly because he’s interested in Sanderson’s girlfriend, Chenault (Amber Heard). With good reason; Heard is insanely beautiful in this movie. Her work in “The Rum Diary” makes a very strong case for her as the best-looking young actress in Hollywood.
“The Rum Diary” is a good-looking piece of work from top to bottom. Director Bruce Robinson — the long MIA creator of “Withnail and I” — captures period Puerto Rico with an eye toward the natural beauty and its colorful inhabitants. The details of the 1950s newsroom feel perfect. But for all of Kemp’s outrageous misadventures and Thompson’s outsized journalism, “The Rum Diary” is surprisingly inert. Even with all the thematic resonances to modern protest movements, it doesn’t add up to a whole lot more than a vanity project in which a big-time movie star valorizes a departed friend for no other reason than he can.
One set-piece after another — a car chase, a cockfight, a disastrous acid trip, and, yes, a visit with a hermaphroditic witchdoctor — come and go with very little in the way of comedy or drama. Maybe Depp, despite his dead-on impersonation of Thompson’s cigarette-stained voice and alcohol-soaked persona, is a bit too cool for the film; even when his job’s on the line, he never seems especially invested in anything around him. When Kemp finds his true, gonzo voice he starts ranting about bringing “blasts of rage” against the greedy bastards destroying Puerto Rico. But the movie never comes close to matching its subject’s passion.