“The book is hopeless,” wrote Hunter S. Thompson to Alfred Kazin in 1961 of his semi-autobiographical novel The Rum Diary, which went unpublished until 1998. Even so, the multitalented Bruce Robinson’s zesty adaptation, with Hunter protégé Johnny Depp as journalist Paul Kemp, is by miles the best Thompson adaptation to hit the screen.
Kemp, a hard-drinking but idealistic newspaperman, lands at a failing San Juan daily, surrounded by a cynical editor (Richard Jenkins), greedy capitalists (including Aaron Eckhart) bent on exploiting Puerto Rico’s riches, eccentric, boozy colleagues (Michael Rispoli and Giovanni Ribisi) and an unattainable beauty (Amber Heard). The picaresque plot, involving Kemp’s narrow escape from shilling for shady developers and a jail sentence, is secondary to the impeccable design and cinematography reflecting San Juan’s “schizoid society” (squalid apartments juxtaposed with pristine beaches and gleaming ’50s cars), ebullient acting and Robinson’s script, which crackles with Thompsonian wit.
Most of the energy is expended in the first hour, after which the drinking, hallucinogens and cock fights become repetitive and Depp’s initially impressive Thompson imitation recedes, yet there’s enough to savor here that it hardly matters; the film so well captures Thompson’s spirit that you have the sense he would have approved. – Pamela Zoslov
Originally published in Cleveland Scene.