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Tuesday, Nov. 1, 2011

The Rum Diary

Johnny Depp portrays young Hunter S. Thompson

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Hunter S. Thompson was several years short of finding his voice as a writer when he penned The Rum Diary, a novel inspired by his experience as a cub reporter in Puerto Rico. He wasn't gonzo, yet. There was no gonzo journalism in 1960. In the film adaptation, Johnny Depp plays Thompson's protagonist and alter ego, Paul Kemp. As the star of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Depp embodied the writer in full gonzo glory, and, on paper, he would seem ideal for The Rum Diary.

As depicted in the amusing if flawed, engaging if improbable film, Kemp is no raging idealist but rather a young writer who'd prefer to maintain integrity—if such an option were possible. His newspaper is in the clutches of creditors and beholden to advertisers. His fulminating editor (Richard Jenkins) is a heart attack waiting to happen, a man who long ago surrendered to cynicism yet relentlessly expunges cynicism from his paper. "The average guy won't rock the boat because he's dying to get on it," he tells Kemp. There will be no rocking at his paper!

The Puerto Rico that Kemp discovers is half American and half something else, its shoreline dotted with gleaming high-rise hotels and its shanty towns filled with laundry drying from lines strung across unpaved roads where donkeys tread and children scramble for pennies. The lax tax laws have made it a haven for American corporations. In spite of the poverty, the place is awash with money. Kemp reluctantly falls in with an arrogant developer (Aaron Eckhart) who wants him to manipulate public opinion through the local media. Kemp tags along to be near the developer's mistress (Amber Heard), with whom he's hopelessly in lust. Kemp encounters many larger-than-life expatriates in the Hemingway setting, starting with the hard-drinking photographer Sala (Michael Rispoli), who serves as guide and conscience. Sala is gonzo. Depp plays Kemp as a character of impeccable cool, especially when his bloodshot, alcoholic eyes are hidden behind a pair of shades. The world knows little of what Hunter S. Thompson was like in 1960, and neither, it appears, does The Rum Diary's star. It's never possible to forget we're watching Johnny Depp, not the spirited author who challenged every assumption and changed the direction of writing in the '60s