Directed by Bruce Robinson
Starring: Johnny Depp,
Aaron Eckhart, Michael Rispoli, Amber Heard
Rated R for language, brief drug use and sexuality
2 hrs.

This movie is based on an early novel by Hunter S. Thompson. It’s a preview of Gonzo journalism in the making — not just the semi-autobiographical tale as he might have lived it in Puerto Rico in the 1950s, but an actual precursor to Thompson’s brilliant and chaotic approach to journalism.

Like Paul Kemp, the book’s main character, Thompson must have imbibed Puerto Rico, along with copious amounts of alcohol, until it rumbled around in his head and spewed out of his portable typewriter in much clearer shape, transformed by his brilliant rage.

Johnny Depp plays journalist Kemp, a down-on-his luck writer and wannabe novelist who fibs his way into a job as a journalist for the San Juan Star, a sinking ship of a paper marooned in one of the city’s worst barrios.
Kemp’s editor, Lotterman (Richard Jenkins), wears a bad wig and constantly bitches about the decrepit state of his paper. Staff writer Moberg (Giovanni Ribisi) is an acid-eaten sod who can barely walk and talk. And photographer Sala (Michael Rispoli), from whom Kemp rents an apartment, is a cock-fighting drunkard who submerges Kemp beneath San Juan’s sordid ghetto.

Enter Sanderson (Aaron Echkart), a shady commercial real estate magnate who wants to seduce Kemp into writing ads for his trumped-up island resort. As bait, Sanderson pairs him up with his erotic fiancée, Chenault (Amber Heard). The bait works and Kemp falls hard for her.

For Kemp, it adds up to both trouble and transformation. He gets an eyeful of the dark side of island life, the rape of a culture by U.S. tourists and snaky businessmen who view Puerto Rico as their personal playground — even as the natives are rioting for lack of work, the children are starving and commercial sharks like Sanderson are stealing their land. Kemp starts out as a startled observer. Where he ends up is anything but.

You would expect, with Depp as the headliner, that he would be the center of energy in this film. Not so. In fact, there are points in this picture where he seems to be sleepwalking. What actually pulls this film at least partially out of the Puerto Rican swamp is his surrounding cast.

There’s Ribisi — barely recognizable as human — red-eyed, slurring his words, contorting his body, acting like a burned-out tweaker; that is, until you learn there’s actually an astute human being hidden under all that drug-induced mess.

Rispoli also has some good moments as a bloated shell of a man whose existence has been absorbed into the island’s exotic night life. And then there’s bombshell Heard, whose erotic beauty rivals the island itself. No wonder, when Depp looks into her eyes, his whole world tilts.

Unfortunately, even with these good performances, the story itself is uneven, sometimes brilliant, sometimes ragged. You get some glimpses of what might have fueled Thompson’s outrage, but the formation of his approach is not as complete as the final product. It’s like watching a young Michelangelo as he’s learning to sketch. The design is there, but the best parts are yet to come.

So, like the old cars they drive on the island, the plot groans and sputters until the final act. Perhaps it’s too weighted with cynicism, or perhaps it’s just incomplete writing. Because of that, watching Rum Diary requires patience. The beginning and middle are like a warm-up — call it a practice run with lots of hits and misses — before the end, like Hunter himself, finally turns dark, quirky and entertaining.

While Depp may have had good intentions here, his efforts to turn Thompson’s early novel into a film that would probably have left his friend and mentor a little embarrassed. Not to worry. There are other good Gonzo books to choose from. One only hopes that Depp keeps trying.