Back in the glamorous days of journalism, potential employers were more interested in the depth of your relationship with alcohol than your social-media savvy, smoking was permitted in the office, and the notion that honest stories could change the world still prevailed, at least among a certain set of starry-eyed writers. That’s the gospel according to The Rum Diary, a big, rambling, entertaining love letter to the late Hunter S. Thompson, based on his loosely autobiographical novel.
Thompson was 22 when he wrote The Rum Diary and hadn’t quite mastered the hallucinatory style that made him famous in such books as Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. But then, the 1960s hadn’t happened yet, and the ’60s were what made Thompson, the anti-authoritarian zeitgeist allowing his distinctive prose to flourish.
The Rum Diary takes that premise and runs with it. Set in 1960 in an idyllic (at first) Puerto Rico, the film follows the adventures of reporter Paul Kemp (Johnny Depp), who starts out writing horoscopes for the San Juan paper, then winds up entangled by a powerful and unscrupulous PR machine named Sanderson (Aaron Eckhart).
Sanderson wants Kemp to take on some extracurricular writing touting his business interests. Kemp likes the idea of getting paid more almost as much as he likes Sanderson’s girlfriend, Chenault (Amber Heard). But he finds himself torn between the wealthy businessman who is slapping up hotels along every inch of Puerto Rican sand and the local residents who can barely see the ocean anymore (though his encounters with those residents are not always sympathetic — or sane).
The push-pull of commerce and poverty, the newspaper’s demand for fluff pieces and Kemp’s growing lust for Chenault wear on his patience and sanity, as does the fact he’s a highly functioning alcoholic. Helping Kemp enter a spiral of booze-fueled anarchy is his photographer pal/roommate, Sala (the hilarious Michael Rispoli, one of the best things in the movie), and the deranged Moberg (Giovanni Ribisi), a former reporter whose brain has been ravaged by drinking what he assures Kemp is 470 proof rum.
The demon rum is practically a character, and the gorgeously shot film looks so good it makes drunken binges and soul-crushing hangovers appealing. There’s something refreshing about The Rum Diary’s rejection of political correctness. There are no women aside from Chenault, who exists solely to inject sex appeal into the proceedings. The characters drink, bet on cockfights and ingest mysterious hallucinogens that aid Kemp, at least, in finding his true voice. In other words, the whole movie is one big, beautiful, funny, nostalgic blast and a fine, fitting tribute to a writer who relished skewering sacred cows.
Cast: Johnny Depp, Michael Rispoli, Giovanni Ribisi, Aaron Eckhart, Amber Heard, Richard Jenkins.
Writer-director: Bruce Robinson. Based on the book by Hunter S. Thompson.
Producers: Christi Dembrowski, Johnny Depp, Tim Headington, Graham King, Robert Kravis, Anthony Rhulen
A FilmDistrict release. Running time: 120 minutes. Language, brief drug use and sexuality. Opens Friday Oct. 28 at area theaters.