Gonzo the almost-great
With Johnny Depp, Michael Rispoli, Amber Heard, Giovanni Ribisi, Aaron Eckhart; Running Time: 120 minutes; Written and directed by Bruce Robinson; Rated R (for language, brief drug use and sexuality)
It’s a story that’s been told many times before. A young person takes a shot at a new job which offers freedom and a chance at reinvention. Along the way he’s seduced into a world that’s sexy and exciting but in which he soon finds himself in over his head. However, the details of the plot play out, our protagonist finds himself at the end sadder, but wiser.
That’s the plot of THE RUM DIARY in a nutshell, but two things make it distinctive. First, it’s set in Puerto Rico of 1960. Second, it’s based on a novel by the late Hunter S. Thompson. That latter is especially important in that Thompson had a distinctive voice which is well-served here. This is especially true in the casting of Johnny Depp, who played Thompson in “Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas” (1998) and also became friends with the writer.
Depp plays Paul Kemp who arrives in San Juan for a job he’s barely qualified for but which he got because he was the only one applied. It’s as staff writer for an English language newspaper on its last legs, and he gets assignments like writing horoscopes and covering bowling tournaments. When he attempts real journalism, such as exposing the poverty on the island, the editor (Richard Jenkins) tells him that no one’s interested.
Two people become very interested in Paul. One is Sanderson (Aaron Eckhart), a businessman and developer who is the picture of success and confidence. He invites Paul to his breathtakingly beautiful beachfront home where he meets the other person who has designs on him, Sanderson’s fiancée Chenault (Amber Heard). It’s a situation that can only lead to trouble.
And that’s what makes this a different sort of story. Paul may be in over his head but he’s hardly naïve. He drinks constantly and, in one odd scene, takes a drug that is administered as eye drops. He has a sense that the way the world works isn’t to benefit people like himself. Yet he allows himself to be pulled into situations where things rapidly get out of control. What he has to learn is, as Thompson himself would later write, when the going gets weird, the weird turn pro.
Depp walks the knife’s edge as Thompson’s fictional alter ego. Although the novel was not published until 1998, Thompson wrote it when he was still in his twenties and based it loosely on his own experiences. Depp has to combine callow youth with flashes of the cynicism, the idealism, and the twisted humor that were part of the journalistic style that would eventually be labeled “gonzo.” Giovanni Ribisi and Michael Rispoli are both standouts as Paul’s roommates, reflecting different sides of Paul’s nature. Heard is lovely and alluring as Chenault, while Eckhart is smooth and charming until things slip out of his control and we see how much of Sanderson’s persona was just for show.
“The Rum Diary” may not break new ground, but it is easily the best of the film adaptations of Thompson’s work, perhaps because it doesn’t feel the need to try to go over the top. Instead, we’re treated to seeing a young writer evolving into the legendary figure he would someday become.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books, the most recent being Jar Jar Binks Must Die… And Other Observations About Science Fiction Movies. He teaches film at Suffolk University and lives in Somerville.