The written words of Dr. Hunter S.Thompson are a part of the DNA of this magazine. From his first piece for Rolling Stone, in 1970 – he was 33 – to the publication of his suicide note in 2005, the good doctor's hallucinogenic rumblings on the decadent and the depraved made literary history.
So it doesn't matter too much that The Rum Diary, a semiautobiographical novel that Thompson wrote when he was 22 (see photo on book cover), isn't his finest work. Or that the film version, finished two years ago but only now being released, isn't classic cinema. But damn if the movie – a passion project for its star and co-producer, Johnny Depp – isn't alive to the challenge of capturing the gonzo master in the act of inventing himself. That he did. And that, I'm pleased to report, is something to see.
Depp plays Thompson alter ego Paul Kemp, a budding New York journalist soaking up sun and rum in Puerto Rico circa 1960, as a new hire on The San Juan Star, a rag staffed by – in Thompson's words – "wild young Turks who wanted to rip the world in half and start all over again" and "degenerates and hopeless losers who could barely write a postcard – loons and fugitives and dangerous drunks." Kemp had found a home.
The Rum Diary, written and directed by Bruce Robinson, expertly cannonballs into the grit and glam with raw exuberance. Robinson, whose 1987 Withnail & I fully earns its immortal cult status, excels with actors. Richard Jenkins is a hoot as Lotterman, the editor with a bad rug and a worse temper. Lotterman can tell Kemp is lying when the writer describes his drinking as being "at the upper end of social." Kemp is soon hanging with such kindred spirits as the Star's sharp-tongued photographer Sala (the excellent Michael Rispoli) and lunatic Moberg (a scene-stealing Giovanni Ribisi), a former reporter living on the far edges of his personal acid trip.
You may think that Depp, 48, has passed his sell-by date to play a young Turk. You may be right. But his enthusiasm for all things Thompson – they're longtime friends and native Kentuckians – helped get the novel published (in 1998) and the movie produced. Depp's take on Thompson proxy Raoul Duke in 1998's Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is iconic. Hell, Depp imbued the author's spirit into the voice of a lizard in the animated Rango. Kemp is Thompson unformed, but Depp digs for the soul of the man and expertly reveals the defining details.
If The Rum Diary has a plot – and that's debatable – it hinges on Kemp's involvement with unscrupulous American business interests personified by Sanderson (Aaron Eckhart in top form), a smooth-talking bastard using Kemp's press cred to procure a fishy real estate deal to exploit the island. As bait, he dangles his fiancee, Chenault, played by Amber Heard with enough come-on carnality to singe the screen. Watching Depp cruise Heard with his eyes or in a red Corvette generates a swirl of color and erotic heat – deep bow to cinematographer Dariusz Wolski – but can't disguise the film's predictable destination.
At best diverting, at worst drearily conventional, The Rum Diary is pre-gonzo Thompson, before the fusion of fact and trippy fantasy that flowered into a brilliant delirium. But the seeds are there, ready to yield a harvest of fear and loathing. The trouble with The Rum Diary, on page and screen, is that it's only a tease, a curio of a time when Thompson wasn't ready yet to rip the world in half and start again.
• Fear and Loathing at Rolling Stone: Excerpts From the Essential Writings of Hunter S Thompson
• Photos: Johnny Depp's Rock & Roll Life
• Peter Travers Tosses October's Worst Movies in the Scum Bucket