If they ever make a time travel tourism film about 1960 Puerto Rico, it will be the opposite of The Rum Diary. Hunter S. Thompson’s vision of the setting is as bleak as the Miami Dolphins’ playoff hopes, with thuggish, resentful locals fuming at mainland interlopers, rathole apartments with water that walks rather than runs and a kangaroo court legal system geared to either run English-speakers off the island or lock them up indefinitely.
Yet these are the places in which legends are made. Thompson drew upon his experiences as a young writer who placed his dreams on hold to toil at a mediocre newspaper job in an exotic location to pen the novel, which he wrote at age 22 but didn’t publish until 1998. In a booze-swilling haze, the writer formed his moral code, honed his participatory journalism technique and found his voice.
Pushing 50, Johnny Depp would seem to be too old for the part, but that would only apply if the actor wasn’t the love child of Dorian Gray and Benjamin Button and either gets younger or ages backward as the years pass. Depp easily passes for a guy in his early 30s. And thanks to nearly a decade toiling as Captain Jack Sparrow, he has ample experience playing a drunken fool who can barely walk.
The movie captures Depp’s character in a never-ending hangover, in which regret-filled nights bleed into bleary-eyed mornings, which themselves are only sleepwalking continuations of the previous wasted day. He buddies up with a burned-out photographer (Michael Rispoli), tries to avoid his Nazi-sympathizing, drug-addled coworker/roomie (Giovanni Ribisi) and cowers under the demands of his creativity-crushing editor (Richard Jenkins). He indulges his wide-eyed corruptible tendencies by allowing himself to be romanced by an evil land developing ring led by Aaron Eckhart and his comely girlfriend (Amber Heard).
The actors are all superb, but Ribisi is disgustingly phenomenal in his transformation into a human snot rag, swiping scenes from the indomitable Depp. You cringe whenever Ribisi slinks on screen to deliver nasally one-liners that draw nervous laughter.
While the movie lacks the absurdist panache of the Terry Gilliam-directed, Depp-starring Thompson adaptation Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, it’s more content to tell a personal, often harrowing tale. The Rum Diary catches a nice buzz early on, spinning Depp and company through an unrelenting house of horrors, but tires toward the end by preaching rather than letting its smaller moments do the fear and loathing for it.
It’s probably impossible to make a perfect movie out of a Thompson book, but The Rum Diaries is a darn good try. Maybe we’ll see perfection a decade from now. Maybe by then, Depp will finally be playing characters his own age. But probably not.
Starring Johnny Depp, Aaron Eckhart, Michael Rispoli, Amber Heard, Giovanni Ribisi and Richard Jenkins. Written by Bruce Robinson, based on a novel by Hunter S. Thompson. Directed by Robinson. 120 minutes. Rated R.