The Rum Diary marks the second time that Johnny Depp has played the proudly dissolute, candle-burning-at-both-ends gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson — or at least a thinly fictionalized version of him. It’s easy to see what’s lured him back to the role. Thompson was a lifelong student of bad behavior — it’s there in the subjects he was drawn to (the Hells Angels, Richard Nixon) and in his drug-addled, often violent antics — but he was also a born agitator, a messed-up rebel-addict with a cause. That makes him the perfect saintly sinner to be played by a Hollywood superstar who still wants to think of himself as a bad boy.
Based on an old autobiographical novel that Thompson pulled out of his drawer and published in 1998, The Rum Diary sets us down in the lush urban tropical backwater of San Juan, Puerto Rico, in 1960, where Depp’s Paul Kemp — basically Thompson with a different name — arrives to work for a grimy little newspaper geared to American tourists. This isn’t the bald, deranged, LSD-popping Thompson figure with a cigarette holder jammed in his jaws whom Depp embodied in the unwatchable Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998). It’s Thompson the inexperienced young dandy still feeling his (wild) oats. The characterization, though, remains more or less the same. Depp stares off into space, as if his brain were being slowly eaten by worms, and he speaks in a robo-monotone. You could call his acting ”cool,” but a more apt description would be monochromatic and hollow. Kemp is an acrid shell of a man, fueled by voluminous amounts of alcohol, and though the film pre-?sents him as an adventurer, in a way he lacks adventure: He has nothing of interest to say.
The director, Bruce Robinson, made the end-of-the-’60s cult film Withnail & I (1987), but that film was about a fascinating rotter. Depp’s Kemp is just a hipster blank. He declares war on his shouting hack of an editor (Richard Jenkins) and falls in with a fellow journalist (Michael Rispoli), who becomes ? his drinking buddy and sidekick, the two of them — like everyone else on the island — oiled by rum. He also meets the most powerful Americans on hand, like Sanderson (Aaron Eckhart), a businessman involved in shady development deals, and Sanderson’s girlfriend, a WASP fatale played by Amber Heard in bedazzling cosmetics: She’s all cocoa skin and Grace Kelly lipstick, like a ’50s magazine cover come to life. Sanderson plans to turn beach property into tourist resorts, and the film treats his cutting of legal corners as a deathless scandal, one that leads to Kemp’s discovery of the evils of capitalism: the world of ”bastards.” But to the audience, this stuff seems like awfully old news. We’re supposed to be witnessing the birth of a great journalist, but Hunter S. Thompson, as his career went on, got swallowed up by his mystique as an outlaw of excess. In The Rum Diary, that myth becomes an excuse for a movie to go slumming. C