Unsuccessful as a novelist, hard-drinking writer Paul Kemp (Depp) heads to Puerto Rico to take a job as a journalist with the local paper. Despite arriving with honourable intentions though, he soon finds himself indebted to a well-connected property developer (Eckhart) who needs someone to place and write favourable articles for a lucrative tourist hotspot on unspoiled land. With his drinking exacerbated by the rum-fuelled lifestyle there, Paul is caught between wealth and finding his writer’s ‘voice’…
Attempting to pay tribute to his late friend Hunter S. Thompson – the notorious creator of stick-it-to-the-man journalism – you really can’t fault producer-star Johnny Depp’s effort. Having persuaded Thompson to publish his long-forgotten manuscript in the first place, Depp (who befriended the author while playing him in Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas) has been pursuing a cinematic adaptation for roughly a decade and finally persuaded fellow outsider Bruce Robinson, writer-director of cult favourite Withnail And I, to return to directing after 17 years away to bring it to life. But despite such admirable intentions though, the result is somewhat unremarkable and it’s difficult to image who The Rum Diary would ultimately appeal to.
Still, it’s much more coherent than Terry Gilliam’s Fear And Loathing and there’s enough here to like. In amongst the sweaty, evocatively-created ’60s Puerto Rico, there’s some well-written dialogue (penned by Robinson, who voluntarily fell off the wagon during writing) and nice moments (effectively scored by Christopher Young’s lovely score), while Depp has the character down (despite imbuing him with many of his familiar idiosyncrasies). Ironically though, given that we’re dealing with a movie about a man trying to find his own ‘voice’ (“I don’t know how to write like me” is the film’s key line), The Rum Diary never finds its own distinct identity. Despite providing an affectionate portrait of Thompson before he became the infamous journo the world knew him as – call it Hunter S. Thompson Begins if you like – the blend of quirky comedy, existential pondering, trippy rambling and generic romance is unlikely to find an audience. Richard Jenkins, Michael Rispoli, Giovanni Ribisi and Aaron Eckhart all lend fine support.
While Johnny Depp’s attempt to pay tribute to his late friend Hunter S. Thompson is admirable and affectionate, the result is somewhat unremarkable. There’s enough to like, but ultimately it’s sadly very difficult to see who The Rum Diary will appeal to.