In his latest role, Johnny Depp finally answers Capt. Jack Sparrow's question: "Why is the rum gone?" At the same time, he reenters the gonzo world of author/ journalist Hunter S. Thompson, this time set in 1960 Puerto Rico. Depp collaborated extensively with Thompson while portraying him (a.k.a. "Raoul Duke") in the already-classic Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998). During the production of that film, Depp dug deep into his method, even living in Thompson's basement for a while in order to "study his habits". The two became such good pals, sharing their Kentucky roots (Depp is from my hometown of Owensboro; Thompson hails from Louisville, which y'all oughta know by now) that they would later address one another as "Colonel" in lengthy correspondence. In fact, HST hits on a load of Louisville references, some rather unflattering, in one of his letters to Depp:
Thompson's novel The Rum Diary was written in the 60s, but wasn't published until 1998, in line with the promotion of the Fear and Loathing film that same year. Thompson died in 2005, and Depp has been tirelessly promoting his works since, going so far as to produce the film adaptation of the Rum Diary himself. Depp plays Paul Kemp, a struggling alcoholic journalist who takes a job at the San Juan Star, and mixes it up with the motley staff and locals. Kemp's roommates/partners in crime are his photographer Sala (Michael Rispoli from Death to Smoochy) and the frightfully mad boozer-prophet Moburg (played with gusto by Giovanni Ribisi).
When I first heard that this project was in the works, I wondered how much of the manic, drug-fueled "Gonzo" part of Thompson's personality Depp would infuse in the role of Kemp. The answer: not so much. Some viewers might be disappointed by the Rum Diary if they're expecting another Fear and Loathing. Still when you compare Paul Kemp to Raoul Duke, you will find parts of their author breathed into both. Where Depp's Duke was a dead-on (and hilarious) portrayal of Thompson at the height of his stoned excess, Paul Kemp is much milder, but played by Depp as anticipating the Thompson-to-come. I also couldn't help but see Ribisi's character, the rum-drenched scoundrel Moburg, as the yang to Kemp's yin- two sides of the coin that is the real Thompson. It's no secret that both Duke and Kemp are fleshed-out aspects of Thompson himself, and in both the Rum Diary and Fear and Loathing, you get flashes of his crucial, biting commentary and weirdly patriotic criticism of the so-called American Dream, found throughout his printed works.
The movie starts out a bit disjointed and uneven, teasing the viewer with allusions to Hangover-esque low comedy. Depp proceeds to what he does best with his expressive face and half-mumbled delivery. Slapstick even comes into play a few times, to this reviewer's delight. Eventually, the comedy dies down and gives way to a captivating sociopolitical drama. This is where the movie surprises. In a profound later moment, talking to a hypnotic lobster in a tank, Kemp evokes Thompson: "Human beings are the only creatures on Earth that claim a God, and the only living things that behave like they haven't got one." Much of the movie reflects Thompson's work as one of the greatest critics of our national zeitgeist in any given decade. His diatribes against corporate and political greed still ring true, and the events that unfold in the Rum Diary give a shimmering retrospective that sheds light on the socioeconomic crises of today.
Photo: courtesy of rumdiarythemovie.com