By Steve Persall
Times Movie Critic
Hunter S. Thompson was somewhere around San Juan, on the edge of a brilliant career when the gonzo began to take hold.
Puerto Rico in 1960 was a fine place for Thompson to find his outlaw "voice made of ink and rage," as his alter ego describes it in The Rum Diary. The American Dream was getting a first taste of its tropical commonwealth, ready to swallow it whole before belching luxury hotels on its sandy beaches, and underpaying natives to work them.
Thompson appreciated the island and detested what was being done with it. Good practice for gutting those parts of U.S. society he later feared and loathed, in books that became counterculture gospel. The going got weird. The Rum Diary is when the weird began turning pro.
Thompson was 25 when he wrote The Rum Diary, and 60 when the novel was finally published. To read the book, or see the movie it has become, is akin to peeking into a cocoon before the butterfly emerges; messy yet promising glory.
Johnny Depp discovered the manuscript for The Rum Diary while visiting Thompson's Colorado compound, urging his friend to have it published and make it into a movie. Once again Depp plays Thompson's alter ego, Paul Kemp, as he played Raoul Duke in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, with tight-jawed, urgent mumblings of curiosity and sarcasm. I'd suggest reading Depp's Rolling Stone eulogy to Thompson, to fully grasp the bond informing both performances.
Paul is a new arrival in Puerto Rico and already hungover, heading to a job interview at the San Juan Star. The newspaper is as rundown as the rest of San Juan, with a publisher (dependable Richard Jenkins) grumbling indifference from under a bad toupee. His staff includes Sala (Michael Rispoli), a burly reporter who enjoys binging and raising a rooster to fight. Sala's saner than Moburg (Giovanni Ribisi), an unhygienic photographer with affection for 470 proof bootleg rum and Hitler speeches on LP vinyl.
The Rum Diary, on the page and screen, is most fun when concentrating on these characters' wild and blurry experiences. Writer-director Bruce Robinson has a nice affinity for boozy misfits, demonstrated here and in the cult fave Withnail and I. Ribisi's jittery mannerisms and strangled voice make a perfect Moburg, and Rispoli makes the most of his meatiest role ever.
Not as successful in either medium is the subplot concerning a crooked developer (Aaron Eckhart) hiring Paul to moonlight writing fluff articles about a resort he'll build to exploit paradise. His girlfriend (Amber Heard) is sex on two legs, something Paul immediately notices and craves. Robinson's film sags in the third act when schemes and self-realization take over, although you could ignite a mouthful of high octane rum with the sparks between Depp and Heard.
The Rum Diary's plot, so to speak, often drowns in its stream of gonzo consciousness. It is a movie of vibrantly decadent parts that never truly become whole. Thompson's fans will embrace its twisted verbal dexterity, romantically imagining the author feverishly pulling strings from the beyond.
Steve Persall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8365.