The story goes that Johnny Depp was with Hunter S. Thompson in the author’s basement rifling through boxes when he came across the manuscript of The Rum Diary – a novel Thompson wrote in the early 1960s, aged 22, fictionalising his stint on a newspaper in Puerto Rico. Depp persuaded him to publish. Oh, and why not make a film?
The result is surprisingly un-addled, an affectionate, from-the-heart tribute to Thompson (who died in 2005) – though perhaps more conventional than any film associated with him has any right to be. While it features plenty of mild, boozy havoc-wreaking, you’ll find no uppers or downers here, no rage, no cocaine, no mescaline and virtually no loss of motor skills.
Using super-strength bleach, writer/director Bruce Robinson (Withnail and I) has disinfected the novel into an origins story – a kind of Gonzo: The Early Years. Depp plays Thompson’s alter ego (as he did in Fear and Loathing): Paul Kemp, a failed 30-year-old novelist who washes up in the office of a two-bit tourist rag in Puerto Rico. ‘I’ve got no voice. I don’t know how to write like me,’ he complains.
This is Thompson before he invented gonzo journalism – that frenzy of non-fiction-fiction he aimed at those he believed to be crooks and imposters. How does Kemp find his writing style? Dropping acid for the first time lights the fire. The story is stoked by a run-in with a corrupt property developer (Aaron Eckhart) and his distractingly gorgeous girlfriend (Amber Heard).
It’s funny as hell in places and touchingly warm in others. But, like Thompson without gonzo, The Rum Diary is directionless and a little lacking in tone. And you have to ask if Depp – at 48 – is a fraction too old to play 30. I’m not sure. He looks in better shape than men half his age. But that unassailable, unshakeable, unruffled charisma does make him hard to buy as a man on his uppers. Caution: this may leave you hankering for a little cynical, subversive bile.