Hunter’s Legacy: Robinson Directs Depp

City Pulse | October 21, 2011
"The Rum Diary" is clearly a labor of love from Johnny Depp who came across Hunter S. Thompson's unpublished early novel while visiting his literary friend at his home in Colorado. The discovery incited an instant agreement with Thompson to finally publish the novel and adapt it into a film. Keeping true to Thompson's iconic speech pattern and take-no-prisoners approach to life, Depp once again throws himself into a role he probably researched more than any other.

Apart from generating plenty of gut-busting laughs "The Rum Diary" maps out the wild and wooly events Thompson experienced while living in Puerto Rico in 1960 that allowed him to find his voice as a writer. Writer/director Bruce Robinson ("How to Get Ahead in Advertising") adapts the material with an ear for potent dialogue, an eye for crucial atmospheric details, and sensitivity to the romanticism of the piece. Amber Heard delivers the sex-appeal of six women as Chenault, a vivacious blonde with an appetite for danger and a libido to match.

Our favorite functioning alcoholic, Thompson-alter-ego Paul Kemp (Depp), arrives on the Caribbean Island with his sense of style intact. A snazzy pair of Ray Bans and a good suit disguise Kemp's bloodshot hangover from the night before when he goes for a job interview with Lotterman (Richard Jenkins), the contentious editor of a local rag for American tourists called the San Juan Star. Lotterman recognizes Kemp's resume is total bullshit, but gives him the job anyway. He needs to replace another writer who was "raped to death" in a public restroom. That’s right, “raped to death.” Kemp promptly falls into good company with the paper’s staff photographer Sala (wonderfully played by Michael Rispoli), who also enjoys imbibing, chasing women, and taking mysterious drugs whose unpredictable effects he is more than willing to catalog first-hand. Giovanni Ribisi is Moburg, an even more unreliable sort. He’s an eccentric writer who only shows up around the newspaper office on Fridays to collect his check. His literary specialty resides more in the realm of identifying and exploring underground realities rather than actually writing about them. As with the film’s entire ensemble, Ribisi pours out his performance like spraying lighter fluid on burning coals. The fact that Moburg never bathes and likes to listen to LP records of Hitler's speeches only slightly disrupts Kemp's take-it-as-it-comes lifestyle when our hero moves into the squalid apartment Moburg and Sala share.

The crux of the story rattles around Sanderson (Aaron Eckhart), a politically connected real estate tycoon who gets his hooks in Kemp to write pro-development stories that will help expedite his plans to push through the building of enormous beachfront hotel complexes. The loan of a candy-apple red ’56 corvette, a wad of cash, and the promise of getting near Sanderson’s sexpot girlfriend Chenault is all Kemp needs to go along for the ride.

As with Bruce Robinson’s enormously popular cult film “Withnail and I,” “The Rum Diary” is an alcohol-soaked story of a search for self that comes from crawling through the belly of the beast. In this case, that belly is the lush and rugged landscape of Puerto Rico’s native inhabitants whose dilemma of extreme poverty Kemp comes to recognize on visceral and intellectual levels. His revelation about the abuses of capitalism inflames him to forever mix rage with ink. “The Rum Diary” is a damn funny movie with a lot on its mind. It’s great fun to watch and listen to Johnny Depp play Hunter S. Thompson. If you miss Hunter as much as I do, you don’t want to miss this movie.

Rated R. 120 mins. (A-) (Four stars – out of five/no halves)

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