Five Things About The Rum Diary
The Rum Diary is a languid, luxuriously sleazy, and oddly touching labor of love. Set in Puerto Rico in 1960, the richly boozy film is a sun-rotted treat for fans of Hunter S. Thompson, Johnny Depp, and Withnail & I.
1) Johnny Depp and Hunter S. Thompson’s Tangled History
Johnny Depp, the story goes, was prepping to play Hunter’s infamous alter-ego Raoul Duke in Terry Gilliam’s 1998 film adaptation of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. In the process, not only did the actor bond with the legendarily prickly Gonzo author (and fellow Kentuckian), but among Thompson’s stored papers Depp found The Rum Diary, an unpublished novel from 1961. Depp convinced the author to publish it in 1998, and they remained close friends until Hunter’s suicide in 2005.
2) Fear and Loathing: The Early Days
The Rum Diary is a young writer’s first novel; a rambling, picaresque semi-autobiography soaked in Thompson’s admiration for Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Graham Greene. It and the film version follow the arrival in San Juan of young journalist Paul Kemp (Depp), who goes to work for the local paper with a heady mix of hedonism and idealism. But Kemp soon finds himself helping spin a shady hotel project, as well as falling for the alluring wife (Amber Heard) of the project’s promoter (Aaron Eckhart).
3) Depp Staggers and Swaggers Back Into Thompson’s Shoes
As Kemp, Depp tones down his cartoonish Fear and Loathing impersonation of Hunter’s halting cadence and reckless passive aggression. Kemp is the young Thompson, still bewildered by the corruption and human duplicity around him, and nobody tosses off that balance of observational innocence and puckish deviltry like Depp. In rumbled-but-stylish suit, tie, and sunglasses, he simultaneously appears shocked and appalled by the chaos around him, but still clever and self-serving enough to come out on top of the mayhem.
4) The Usual Gonzo Suspects
Around Kemp parades the usual cast of Thompson’s characters. Michael Rispoli sturdily plays a groaning mentor-sidekick who’s a clear forerunner of HST’s “Dr. Gonzo/Lazlo” lawyer, and Richard Jenkins is an exasperated newspaper publisher. Giovanni Ribisi steals scenes as a mumbling, crazed, drug-addled burnout of a writer—a role not too far in tone from the carnival persona Thompson would eventually play at in real life. Eckhart is nicely oily as a slick, ambitious PR huckster, but while Heard (in full Grace Kelly mode) handles the part of his seductive wife perfectly, her character and the film’s trumped-up love triangle are its wobbliest bits.
5) A Boozy Boost from the Director of Withnail & I
Depp’s best move in this passion project was coaxing director Bruce Robinson out of retirement to write and direct The Rum Diary. Robinson’s 1987 Withnail & I is a classic of the post-Gonzo genre: a veddy British (and debauched) riff on Fear and Loathing.
The filmmaker’s sleazy but sensitive tone well serves Thompson’s prematurely weary, wandering narrative. A fine touch with actors, Robinson’s also unafraid to let scenes marinate in their own sweaty, dusty juices.
The Final Word
The Rum Diary has plenty of entertaining, liquor-fueled mishaps, but at heart it chronicles a young man’s realization in 1960 that the post-war American Dream is rotting in the sun. A heartfelt tribute from Depp, the film celebrates Thompson’s awakening as a journalist—the point at which disillusionment began to fuel the determination to expose greed, corruption, and decay.