out of Five
Running time: 119
Enjoyably ramshackle, frequently funny drama that delivers the appropriate flavour of early Hunter S. Thompson, thanks to terrific performances, a literate script, superb production design and a cracking soundtrack.
What's it all about?
Directed by Bruce Robinson (Withnail & I), The Rum Diary is based on an early, semi-autobiographical novel by Hunter S. Thompson that was written in the 1960s but only unearthed and published (with Johnny Depp's help) in 1998. Depp plays Thompson's thinly-disguised alter-ego Paul Kemp, a boozy American journalist who arrives in Puerto Rico in 1960 and takes a job on the San Juan Star, a failing local newspaper run by harried editor Lotterman (Richard Jenkins), who takes one look at Kemp and immediately warns him to lay off the booze, lest he end up like drug-addled fellow reporter Moberg (Giovanni Ribisi).
Accompanied by world weary photographer Sala (Michael Rispoli), Kemp soon finds himself succumbing to the island's various pleasures, not the least of which is the beautiful Chenault (Amber Heard), the girlfriend of shady businessman Sanderson (Aaron Eckhart). However, when Sanderson offers him money to write favourable copy about an upcoming real estate deal, Kemp has an important decision to make regarding his journalistic integrity.
Appropriately for a film that is, in some sense, about Hunter S. Thompson discovering his voice, Depp pitches his performance perfectly, filtering in just a tiny taste of the full-blown Thompson performances he has given elsewhere (Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Rango, Gonzo). Similarly, Rispoli is superb as Sala and there's terrific support from Heard (who brings an extra level of depth to her drop-dead gorgeous character), Ribisi (delightfully bonkers, as always) and Jenkins, whose frenzied interactions with Moberg are one of several comic highlights.
Robinson's exquisitely literate script is packed with wonderful dialogue (“Your tongue is like an accusatory giblet!”), only two lines of which are actually lifted from Thompson, while still giving a strong sense of the seeds of Thompson's future work. He also orchestrates some terrific set-pieces, such as an escape from a car-load of thugs and a hilarious sequence where Kemp and Sala have to share a single seat while driving a car.
The only real problem with the film is that the pacing drags a little in the middle section as the story starts to meander around and the already ramshackle plot takes a back seat to the various drug-fuelled shenanigans; it's also a good twenty minutes too long and runs out of steam before the end.
Pacing issues aside, The Rum Diary is an enjoyable, frequently funny drama with a strong script and terrific performances from a superb cast. Great soundtrack too. Worth seeing.