“Absolutely nothing in moderation,” states the tagline for “The Rum Diary,” and Johnny Depp lives up to it by getting sloshed for the better part of two hours. Yet temperance of a different sort, a willful abstention from trippy stylistic excess, is what makes this 1960-set Caribbean picaresque easily the most lucid screen adaptation of Hunter S. Thompson’s work, even if it’s still several drafts shy of a fully developed yarn. Stronger on dreamy, seedy atmosphere than on narrative coherence, FilmDistrict’s exotic curio should draw the overlapping Depp/Thompson fanbases but will command general auds in, well, moderation.
Thompson was in his early 20s when he wrote his semi-autobiographical second novel about hard-nosed American newspapermen drinking, screwing and occasionally writing amid the social upheaval of late-’50s Puerto Rico. The manuscript went unpublished for nearly 40 years before it was finally excavated (with Depp’s help) and printed in 1998, offering the public a rare dispatch from the author’s pre-gonzo years; though recognizably Thompson in its first-person account of lust, lucre and liquor, “The Rum Diary” merely hinted at the heavy drug use and reckless blurring of fact and fiction that would define his style.
By dint of its source material, then, writer-director Bruce Robinson’s long-aborning screen version never devolves into a catalog of aggressively stupid acid-trip behavior a la 1998’s “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas”; this may disappoint extreme Thompson buffs but will make “Diary” that much more palatable for a wider viewership. The chief similarity between the two pics is that both star Depp as a substance-abusing scribe who can’t seem to control his vices or stay on assignment in an unfamiliar environment.
It’s 1960 in San Juan, a tropical shark tank where U.S. business interests run rampant, the locals harbor bitter anti-American sentiment and the fourth estate occupies the lowest, dirtiest rung of the social ladder. Paul Kemp (Depp) has just arrived to work at the San Juan Star, run by a cantankerous editor (Richard Jenkins), who takes one look at Kemp’s bloodshot eyes and warns him to lay off the liquor. Fat chance, so long as Kemp is rolling with the colorful likes of world-weary photographer Sala (Michael Rispoli) and wild eccentric Moburg (Giovanni Ribisi), who likes to experiment with narcotics and listen to old recordings of Hitler’s speeches.
Early passages in particular are notable for their bracingly sharp, tangy dialogue, much of which is written from scratch; fans of Robinson’s all-too-infrequent work (“Withnail and I,” “Jennifer Eight”) will recognize and relish the literate sensibility at play here. The scribe-helmer also has productively reshuffled and consolidated figures from the book, eliminating one major character and handing a prominent role to Sanderson (Aaron Eckhart), a suave, well-heeled American businessman who brings Kemp into his inner circle.
Hoping to elicit favorable copy about a shady real-estate deal, Sanderson dangles a number of gifts before Kemp, the most tantalizing being his own g.f., Chenault (Amber Heard, recently of NBC’s “The Playboy Club”). An arrestingly foxy vision in white bikini and red lipstick, Heard drives two of the picture’s most indelible sequences: one in which Kemp and Chenault take Sanderson’s Corvette for a spin, and another in which the girl loses herself amid a writhing tangle of bodies on a dance floor.
Lurching from these moments of pulse-quickening eroticism to Kemp and Sala’s unruly misadventures, “The Rum Diary” executes its tonal backflips with the woozy grace of an amiable drunkard. Mercifully, there’s only one obligatory scene of psychotropic hallucination, and in this fairly restrained context, its grotesquerie is almost exquisite.
Conjuring a sweaty, sordid ambience through d.p. Dariusz Wolski’s Super 16 lensing and use of mostly natural light, the film as a whole is best appreciated as a succession of richly rendered moods, plenty stimulating in the moment but rarely coalescing into something greater. The novel, though similarly ragged, was held together by Thompson’s tough vision of a harsh, lawless Puerto Rico succumbing to the West’s parasitic influence; what little of this makes it onscreen has been soft-pedaled, its fearsome violence reduced to the level of a hangover.
Robinson attempts to elevate Kemp’s moral stature by molding him into an avatar of stick-it-to-the-Man justice, a muckraking pen wielded against society’s “bastards,” according to the film’s closing dedication to Thompson. But this aim is frustrated, surprisingly, by the casting of Depp, who, though one of the project’s driving forces, seems weirdly unfocused and disengaged in a role for which he’s at least 20 years too old; the thesp gave a much more flavorsome, gonzo-esque turn as a cartoon lizard in this year’s “Rango.”
Supporting actors expertly pick up much of the slack. Eckhart and Jenkins are perfectly cast; Ribisi, in a hilarious live-wire perf, is like a drug that can be counted on to deliver a ferocious jolt; and Rispoli invests his cynical shutterbug with a rewarding emotional undercurrent.
Production designer Chris Seagers applies subtle ’60s touches to Puerto Rico’s sun-kissed exteriors and grotty interiors, an effect furthered by Colleen Atwood’s retro costumes. The jazzy, flowing rhythms of Christopher Young’s score provide a continually sultry backbeat.