What made Hunter S. Thompson such a brilliant writer was his ability to make non-fiction feel fabulously artificial and fiction feel plausibly real. Thompson’s toy was reality, and he treated it with a playfulness that created a style of journalism and inspired countless admirers.
One of those admirers is Johnny Depp, who eventually was able to call the King of Gonzo Journalism a friend and played him in the unforgettable Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (Thompson‘s most famous work (non-fiction, mind you)).
Depp’s motives are clearer than Thompson’s were. His integrity is mostly intact (even after the fourth Pirates of the Caribbean installment) because he often pursues projects that are labors of love, films like 2011′s The Rum Diary, which is based on Thompson’s only published work of fiction (inspired by his time as a journalist in San Juan).
The Rum Diary stars Depp as Paul Kemp a just-hired reporter for the San Juan Star.
Kemp arrives in San Juan, Puerto Rico, which his boss Lotterman (Richard Jenkins) suggests is essentially America. He warns Kemp to stay away from alcohol. Staff photographer, Sala (Michael Rispoli), lets Kemp know he was the only applicant.
Kemp savages the mini-bar at his hotel and then moves in with Sala and blotto, on-again-off-again Star employee, Moberg (Giovanni Ribisi). Kemp enjoys copious amounts of rum and meets American entrepreneur, Sanderson (the criminally underrated Aaron Eckhart).
Like all good journalists, Kemp sways to the left, but Sanderson offers him the opportunity to be part of a scheme to bilk the Puerto Rican government and public into letting his group of businessmen construct a hotel complex on a beautiful, undisturbed island that is about to become government property.
Kemp’s belief system is tested not only by the money that is being waved in his face, but by Sanderson’s beautiful girlfriend, Chenault (Amber Heard).
When Kemp accompanies Sanderson and Chenault on a trip to Carnival, his world, which had been unraveling slowly, blows apart.
In the most unsatisfying aspect of the story, Kemp isn’t even forced to make a choice regarding his ethical dilemma. The movie seems to drag on unnecessarily after Kemp’s return to Puerto Rico, where he promises a rage for which he has no outlet. Even the victories he does achieve seem hollow.
Many who loved the book will appreciate that this attempt was made. Yet, where Thompson succeeds wildly, this film disappoints. It is neither deliciously fake or interestingly real.