Depp enjoys latest dance with Thompson in 'Rum Diary'

Michael Rispoli and Johnny Depp star in "The Rum Diary." SOURCE FILMDISTRICT
November 7, 2011

Your appreciation of "The Rum Diary" will essentially boil down to your take on the writings of Hunter S. Thompson. Or booze. Or both.

It's not the wild, wooly, drug-soaked excursion that was "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas," Depp's last dance with Thompson's material. Of course, that film was based on the author's seminal work, written at the peak of his substance-saddled self. "Diary" was written at the start of the author's career, and is a more muted affair, but no less engaging, and soaking in the style of its era.

Set in 1960s-era Puerto Rico, "Diary" focuses on an aspiring journalist named Paul Kemp (played by Depp, and loosely based on Thompson's earlier work as a writer), who travels to a struggling newspaper to jump start his career. His efforts are somewhat waylaid with the introduction to the titular drink, a beguiling ingenue (played by Amber Heard), and the various flotsam of writers who washed upon the newspaper's shores.

A local American land baron (played by Aaron Eckhart) enlists Kemp to assist in his latest acquisition, which leads the writer to unearth a shady deal that involves some very high-ranking individuals. It's slight and, frankly, merely a means to string together a slew of skeezy, sexy and spirit-soaked (mis)adventures.

Those looking for the manic madness of Terry Gilliam's 1998 "Fear and Loathing" will be thumb-twiddling through the majority of "Diary," but for those who are familiar with the Thompson legacy, should find much to appreciate here.

Featuring sun-smacked vistas (amidst the filth-caked drug dens), as well as romanticized songs and styles of the era, "Diary" creates a moody, slow-burn prequel of sorts to the gonzo travails to follow. The cast easily slips into the period, with Depp nailing the cadence and delivery of his former pal Thompson. It's a role with which he's certainly become comfortable, and -- partly because the period of Thompson's life in which this takes place -- is noticeably more controlled and human and less ticky mannerisms that marked "Fear and Loathing."

Where Eckhart is all charm and smarm, Giovanni Ribisi appears as a dark harbinger of what Thompson's life may ultimately become, after simmering in booze and recreational drugs far too long. Escapades with the various characters take them from grungy cockfighting dens to meditations of hermaphroditic oracles, and "Diary" becomes more of an episodic travelogue than a narrative, but remains entertaining throughout.

Credit should also be handed to director Bruce Robinson, a cult auteur Depp coaxed out of semi-retirement to helm the picture. He manages to capture equal parts beauty and darkened danger of its vistas, while still staying true to Thompson's words and world.

"Rum Diary" is an acquired taste, for sure, but if you succumb to its allure, there is much sandy, sexy, shady adult fun to be found. And it is perhaps Depp's most engaging trip to the Caribbean since Jack Sparrow first washed ashore in 2003.

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