Hunter S. Thompson wrote “The Rum Diary” in 1961 before he became the revered gonzo journalist who penned “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.” It’s very loosely based on a period of time he spent in San Juan, Puerto Rico in the early days of his writing career, before, as his alter ego Paul Kemp (Johnny Depp) says in the film, he knew “who to write like me.”
So don’t expect the surreal poetry of “Fear and Loathing” or the disjointed charm of “Where the Buffalo Roam.” This is an origin story, the roots of gonzo, but the gonzo spirit of its creator is sadly missing.
Depp plays Kemp using a slight variation on the clipped Thompson accent he made famous in “Fear and Loathing.” He’s a hard drinking, failed novelist who thought he’d try his hand at selling some “words for money” to a newspaper in Puerto Rico. His plan to “lift the stone on the American Dream,” however, is kiboshed by an editor (Richard Jenkins) more interested maintaining the status quo than exposing the country’s ills. Assigned to writing an astrology column Kemp peers into the bottoms of lots of glasses of rum and becomes obsessed with Chenault (Amber Heard), the girlfriend of a shady PR man (Aaron Eckhart).
Kemp is a struggling writer, an artist still struggling to find his voice, which echoes the main failing of the film. Despite a director, Bruce Robinson, who made one of the funniest and best films about boozing (“Withnail and I”) and Depp’s close friendship with Thompson, the movie feels as if it is searching for a purpose. A voice. Despite the presence of a Hermaphrodite Oracle of the Dead, countless ounces of rum, one drug trip and some major movie star mojo from Depp, the movie falls flat.
It’s a story about perception—Eckhart’s PR man is selling one vision of the island, Kemp wants to reveal another—and how gazing into that chasm helped Kemp discover his voice and integrity but in the end it is neither the savage indictment of lazy journalism it should be, or (because of an ambiguous non-ending) the celebration of the power of the written word it couldn’t have been.
As the main curator of Thompson’s cinematic legacy Depp breathes some life into Kemp, although by times the broad performance feels at odds with the tone of the rest o the story.
As for the rest of the cast, Michael Rispoli embodies the boozy spirit of the piece. Giovanni Ribisi goes one swig over the line and will someone please give Amber Heard a job on “Mad Men?” Her face screams 1965.
Of course the film’s main character’s name is Paul Kemp and it takes place before the finely crafted persona of Hunter S. Thompson came into being but a healthier dose of the writer’s “ink and rage” might have given “The Run Diary” the spark it needed to really ignite.