If Hunter S. Thompson were a superhero, The Rum Diary would be a sort of origin story. Written by a 22-year-old Thompson but unpublished until 1998, the novel is a fictionalized account of his early writing days in Puerto Rico. With Johnny Depp in the lead role as “Paul Kemp” — the young Thompson’s avatar — the movie version unavoidably becomes a prequel to 1998’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, wherein Depp played “Raoul Duke” (the older Thompson’s avatar). Weirdly, Depp at 46 playing a twentysomething Thompson doesn’t look much different than Depp at 34 playing a fortysomething Thompson. Maybe he’s a vampire, or maybe he benefits here from having a full head of hair (which he manfully shaved to assay Raoul Duke).
Depp here isn’t nearly as pixellated — or as drolly incomprehensible — as he was in Fear and Loathing, suggesting a Thompson who still has a handle on mundane clarity. Kemp drops in on the San Juan Star, a Puerto Rican paper dipping its toes in insolvency, and is hired without much fanfare. Assigned at first to puff pieces and horoscopes, Kemp stumbles across a local cabal of Americans planning to mar the island with hotels; they want him on their team, writing love letters in the paper to their shining capitalist efforts. Surrounding this is a lot of stuff that feels like padding but is the true subject of the movie: the building of a point of view, the discovery of a voice. Kemp/Thompson, who at first defines himself as politically “in the middle,” becomes radicalized and, perhaps not coincidentally, acquainted with the siren song of rum and psychedelics.
For certain fans of cult cinema, this isn’t just a prequel to Fear and Loathing; it’s also a spiritual sequel to 1987’s Withnail & I, the debut feature by writer/director Bruce Robinson. Withnail was Robinson’s fond look back at his bedraggled younger days in the late ’60s with a drunken flatmate. The Rum Diary marks Robinson’s return to filmmaking after nearly two decades away from a camera, and it’s clear that he’s most at home in the Withnail-like scenes of Kemp hanging around in dingy quarters with his shabby coworkers at the paper, Bob Salas (Michael Rispoli) and Moberg (Giovanni Ribisi). In the cynical Bob and the wild-living, drug-addled Moberg, Kemp finds elements of what will become the familiar Thompson persona. They are to him what Withnail was to Robinson. They destroy themselves but teach him how to live.
Everything to do with Amber Heard as the trophy girlfriend of one of Kemp’s capitalist-swine cronies (Aaron Eckhart) is dead air, but then this actress has always struck me as an energy drain. She hits her marks, says her lines, contributes nothing. Her vacuity is a little eerie. But Kemp is supposed to find her enchanting, so this aspect of the film doesn’t work — except, maybe, to explain the relative sexlessness of Thompson’s later writing. Thompson’s muse was never a woman — it was an opium ball dipped in rage. In the movie, Kemp and Bob drop — directly into their eyeballs — what appears to be acid, and though this leads to a comic-horror hallucination, we’re meant to see that the experience kicked down the doors in Kemp’s mind, wised him up once and for all. Or, as William Burroughs would put it, he saw what was at the end of every fork.
Robinson doesn’t punch that up for us. He doesn’t really punch anything up. Some of The Rum Diary is borderline boring, perhaps because it was written before Thompson had honed his voice, taken more trips, and developed how to mix it all into a savage political statement. This story is about a future master learning the ropes — learning to be Hunter S. Thompson. As such, it’s of obvious interest to Thompson acolytes and of no obvious interest to anyone else. As a fan of Thompson and Robinson, I enjoyed the film’s laid-back shagginess, though it’s not a patch on either man’s masterpieces. It’s good to see Bruce Robinson working again, and good to see a tribute to Thompson on over 2,000 screens nationwide (all hail Depp, whose Pirates whoring still got this thing made, and released on this level). It’s an entertaining footnote. But it’s a footnote.