The Rum Diary is an origin story, much like the ones essential to the superhero canon. You know: how and why your favorite caped crusader came to acquire special powers and purpose in life.
But the superhero here is, in fact, a superfreak - Hunter S. Thompson, the gonzo journalist of legendary excess (drugs! drink! women! weaponry!) whose incendiary mix of fact and fiction upended reportorial writing in the 1970s and '80s. His two best-known works, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail, signaled a head-spinning shifting of the gears in the way news could be covered and consumed.
Thompson went on to write more (and, arguably, some say, less) but his impact on several generations of writers, and readers, should not be discounted.
One of those readers - later to become Thompson's fast friend - is Johnny Depp, who portrayed the author's alter ego, Raoul Duke, in Terry Gilliam's hallucinogenic Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. In The Rum Diary, Depp stars again as Thompson - or, in this case, as Paul Kemp, a newspaper reporter who talks his way into a job with a floundering Puerto Rican daily, proceeds to consume vast quantities of alcohol, gets enmeshed in a shady real estate deal, and beds the beauteous girlfriend of the guy who's given him a decidedly interest-conflicting job.
The film is from Thompson's semi-autobiographical second novel, finished in the early 1960s but not published until almost 40 years later. (Thompson died in 2005; Depp paid for the memorial service.) It is 1960 when Kemp deplanes in Puerto Rico from New York, assuring his new editor at the San Juan Star (a very good Richard Jenkins) that he drinks only "at the upper end of social" and that he is, in fact, a responsible, reliable, deadline-cognizant reporter.
The editor, Lotterman (based on Thompson's real-life boss back then and there - the novelist William J. Kennedy), sees Kemp for the drunkard that he is. He assigns him a desk and a typewriter, and the horoscopes beat.
Jazzy and colorful, full of men and women in swell clothes driving cool cars, The Rum Diary has a bit of a seedily exotic Graham Greene vibe, and Robinson moves things along at a nice, casual clip, even in the film's more overheated moments. And overheated moments there are: Amber Heard, looking dangerously young and impossibly glamorous, plays Chenault, the blond trophy at the side of the slick, sinister Sanderson. Aaron Eckhart, puffing expensive cigars, is this wheeler-dealer with a beachside manse, a yacht, a red Austin Healey, and Heard.
Kemp takes one look at Sanderson's girlfriend and mutters, "Oh God, why did she have to happen?" Things don't end well for either Chenault or Kemp, but they share some memorable moments as all hell breaks loose.
Plot-wise, The Rum Diary doesn't quite hang together, and the dependably annoying Giovanni Ribisi, playing a nutball narcotics fiend by the name of Moburg, delivers line readings that bring Peter Lorre and Ratso Rizzo to mind. (Not in a good way.) Michael Rispoli makes a more suitable sidekick for Kemp - his Sala is a seasoned staff photographer who knows where the cheap bars are.
A romanticized take on old-time newspapering, on waning-days Caribbean colonialism, and on the poetry of the besotted scribe, The Rum Diary isn't high art. But in its depiction of a budding artist who got himself very high, it excels.