Review: ‘The Rum Diary’

1. It took me a while to figure out what the point of "The Rum Diary" is, but I think I've got it now. It's not so much a "point," exactly, as it is a "reason for existing," not that either is easier to discover than the other. Here it is: Johnny Depp thinks this is a superhero origin story. This is not a story about corruption in Puerto Rico in 1960, nor is it about journalism, nor is it even about wacky hijinks under the influence of various substances (though mostly rum). No, this is about how Hunter Thompson, struggling boy reporter with no career, turned into Hunter S. Thompson, Johnny Depp's personal hero. This is what Depp's old pal was like a kid. That's the only reason it's here. This realization didn't make the film any more coherent or watchable, but it at least helped alleviate a bit of my bafflement.

2. The film is based on Thompson's 1998 fictionalized memoir of his time working for a San Juan newspaper in the early '60s, and, as a longtime Hunter reader and semi-fan (and even onetime drinking companion), let me tell you that it is not among his finest work. This is an opinion widely shared. It's late-in-life Hunter, totally lacking in discipline or urgency, a loose collection of random observations and Thompson speechifying tics ("Cockroaches! Scoundrels! The American Dream!" that sort of thing) floating around in search of a story that threatens to materialize but never does. It was Thompson's first book, and it reads like it, with a cliched young man's faux-gravitas polished up with late-era Thompson nostalgia kicks. It ain't much, is what I'm saying, Thompson cashing in on a younger generation rediscovering him with a splashy "The Long Lost Novel!" cover line. Which is why it's so strange that Depp and company treat it like the Dead Sea Scrolls; they adhere to the book as scripture.

3. Thus, long rambling scenes that go nowhere, a plodding narrative full of characters that sound like second-rate Thompson outbursts awkwardly formatted into breathing people, endless dialogue about pigs and swine and This Is Journalism. Thompson (his pretend movie stand-in is "Paul Kemp," but all he's missing from Hunter is the cigarette holder) goes into his newsroom, and then he hangs out at the beach, and then he goes on crazed drinking binges and every once in a while he notices a poor person and suddenly he's babbling on about justice. Then Amber Heard is naked and then there's a cockfight. (Involving birds.) It really is odd how seriously Depp and writer/director Bruce Robinson treat this story; they seem to think they're telling the story of the creation of a Great Man, while the rest of us are just watching Depp do his Hunter S. Thompson impression. Again.

4. Depp obviously had to play the lead role to get this movie made in the first place, but it's an odd juxtaposition nonetheless. First and foremost, I know Depp is a handsome, fit man who looks at least a decade younger than he is, but still; he is a 48-year-old man playing a 23-year-old supposedly at the start of his career. It's pushing it to say the least; Depp's supposed to be a young guy who falls under the sway of a rich developer (played by Aaron Eckhart, in a peculiarly straight-arrow performance, like someone told Eckhart he was in a different movie entirely), but instead Eckhart looks about 15 years younger. And Depp looks like he's molesting poor 25-year-old Amber Heard. It's nice to see Depp all glammed up for a few scenes, clean shaven and showered, admitting he's, you know, handsome for the first time in what seems like 30 movies, but still: He's not a kid. The movie sees this story -- such as it is -- as Hunter S. Thompson's coming-of-age tale, but with Depp, it plays like an aging idealist alcoholic trying to figure out his life and hit on younger, married women. It doesn't help that Depp essentially plays Thompson the same way he played him in "Fear in Loathing in Las Vegas" 13 years ago. His eyes bulge, he shifts his jaw and he walks all stutter-stepped, like he's just treading on land for the first time after months at sea. We've seen it before.

5. Look: I know that Depp reveres Thompson -- he paid for his funeral and continues to extol the great man's virtues -- and if this movie is how he wants to cash in his "Pirates of the Caribbean" chips, far be it from me to stop him. But I'm still not quite sure Depp understands what's so interesting about Thompson. There was a fundamental, uncompromising truth and warmth of spirit at the heart of Thompson, and he pushed it so far that, quicker than he ever realized (and definitely quicker than anybody else ever did), he couldn't keep up with himself. He became a character, the type of character he was so skilled at chronicling, and you could sense the strain at having to pretend to be that character -- rather than a breathing, living human -- for the last few decades of his life. (For a compelling, and sad, telling of this, I recommend Alex Gibney's "Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson" from 2008.) You know: The kind of character that has inspired Depp to play him twice in a movie. Thompson was a compelling character, but Depp has played him in two movies now, and that hasn't come across yet. Instead, this is just a bunch of actors playing along with Depp -- particularly bad is Giovanni Ribisi as a wasting away drunk -- to let him play one of his idols as an homage to his late, close friend. That's great. I'm glad Depp and Thompson were so close, and I'm sure Hunter would have been touched by the tribute. But that doesn't make it any fun for the rest of us to watch.

Grade: C-