Johnny Depp really, truly believes in Hunter S. Thompson. The Rum Diary is proof of that — not only in the new narrative feature film starring Depp and adapted sympathetically by director Bruce Robinson, but in the publication of Thompson's original novel itself, which reportedly lay on the shelf until actor Depp convinced the notorious "Gonzo" author Thompson, his close friend and drinking buddy, to re-submit the previously rejected, long-forgotten 1960 novel. That happened in 1998, seven years before Thompson died. From there it was destined to be shepherded to the big screen by Depp as a tribute to his fellow Kentuckian, and now here it is.
Life seems to have been so much easier in 1960. A handsome, college-educated young chap like Paul Kemp (Thompson's fictional stand-in, played by the 48-year-old Depp), adept at bluffing his way past square gatekeepers and intent on burnishing his journalistic resumé, could wangle a staffer job at a shop like the San Juan Star in Puerto Rico with no sweat. There was always a spot in a city newsroom somewhere for a glib guy who could spot the angles.
The sweat is there, of course, but Kemp figures he can handle it. The Star's editor, Lotterman (Richard Jenkins with a tattered rug on his head), is a composite of all the apoplectic, roaring newspaper editors that have ever been. Among the burn-outs in the editorial bullpen is photographer Bob Sala (convincingly played by Michael Rispoli), a determined drunk who knows every watering hole in town and moonlights as a breeder of fighting cocks. Sala shares a rat-hole San Juan flat with an even crazier rummy on the Star payroll, Moburg (Giovanni Ribisi, almost unrecognizable, a greasy combo of John Qualen and Strother Martin). Moburg infests the streets in a suit of rags and bolsters his spirits by playing his Adolf Hitler record collection at odd hours, while most people are either sleeping or having sex. When things go too far wrong for Moburg he visits Papa Nebo (Karimah Westbrook), his favorite hermaphrodite voodoo witch doctor.
As nutty as the journos are, there's a still more frantic contingent in New Frontier Puerto Rico yanqui real estate developers and their shadowy local friends. Kemp/Thompson makes fun of them, the Union Carbide conventioneers and such, as "Great Whites," fresh off the plane from Grand Rapids, looking for sun and sin and refusing to speak Spanish. Slick corporate fixer Sanderson (Aaron Eckhart, perfectly cast) latches onto Paul and offers him a public-relations gig for the money boys. It's too rich to pass up. So is Sanderson's creamy blond wife, Chenault (red-lipped Amber Heard), whose hobby is teasing the entire male population of the island, one by one.
Packaging together Thompson's ripe cast of characters and situations with a mega-popular movie star like Depp would be any filmmaker's dream, but ostensibly especially so for UK native Robinson, creator of the everlasting cult hit Withnail & I (1987). Robinson has only directed two films since, and Depp reportedly had to talk him out of retirement to take the assignment. The pace lags slightly in the third quarter — a lot of that going around these days — but Robinson obviously revels in Paul Kemp's bawdy predicaments, which truly hark back to another era. Depp and the whole cast throw themselves into the bad old Kennedy-vs.-Nixon days with gleeful abandon.
Hard-core Thompson fans will no doubt devour their man's Wonder Years as he refines his outrage ("I don't know how to write like me," complains Paul) and laugh at the antics, considerably more innocent and less despairingly hallucinatory than those in Las Vegas. Meanwhile, post-Baby-Boomers could well be left scratching their heads, wondering how anyone so handsome (tropical Depp resembles the Purple Noon Alain Delon) would choose an entry-level job writing a horoscope column just to get on a daily paper. It's what made Gonzo Gonzo.