In The Rum Diary, a suavely scruffy American novelist (Johnny Depp) takes a reporting gig at a shabby newspaper in Puerto Rico, where he contends with various kooky colleagues (Michael Rispoli, Richard Jenkins, Giovanni Ribisi), a smug and greedy land developer (Aaron Eckhart), a luscious love interest (Amber Heard), and several angry locals. Also, he drinks.
Johnny Depp once again channels the late author Hunter S. Thompson in The Rum Diary, an adaptation of Thompson’s rollicking second novel.
The newspaper, unsurprisingly corrupt, happens to be on the brink of ruin. The luscious love interest, surprisingly pure, happens to be involved with the smug and greedy land developer. The colleagues get kookier, the locals get angrier, and our man gets along as best he can, typing it all up. Just about everybody speaks in the eruditely debauched voice of Hunter S. Thompson, from whose novel writer-director Bruce Robinson’s frolicsome film derives, but that chorus effect also makes for agreeably easy listening.
The Rum Diary is basically The Hangover for a more self-consciously bookish crowd: stylish, shallow, calculatedly excessive, not hard to like. Depp has been doing the dashing man-boy for his whole career, of course, and there is a sense for better and worse that he deserves this role. Having starred in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and served as the in-house excerpt reciter for the documentary Gonzo, his Thompson-proxy credentials are by now well established. The Rum Diary does raise a vague concern about how many more of these pet projects he (or we) can take, but then it raises a figurative shot glass, with a magnanimous toast to anyone who’d bother getting uptight about all that.
Depp’s castmates take very seriously their apparent mandate to enjoy themselves. Rispoli in particular, as a game but grizzled mentor, is great fun to watch. He does the sort of unwashed, “crazy” act that Brad Pitt used to do when he was anxious to register as anything other than just good looking, but it’s impossible to begrudge him that. After a while, with its self-delighted mania and adolescent mischief, the whole thing starts feeling like a handsomely mounted college stage production. Even at its most foul-mouthed and faux-cynical, it’s all rather chaste and sincere. Even when incoherent and mediocre, it’s at least sort of touching.
Robinson makes narrative degeneration seem like an aesthetic choice, and straddles a line between period piece and anachronism nimbly enough to never seem stuffy on either front. What a dash of Thompson’s famously eloquent Nixon hatred lacks in currency, for instance, it makes up for in hilarity. As entertainment for its own sake, The Rum Diary doesn’t exactly radiate political or thematic seriousness, but does it need to? By the time Depp’s sitting at his typewriter promising us that he’ll “put the bastards of the world on notice that I do not have their best interests at heart,” it’s hard to know what he’s talking about, or to feel anything other than fondly, slightly embarrassed for him. But after all, it is a diary.