“Vividly average” is the term used to describe the Puerto Rican readership of a raggedy newspaper in “The Rum Diary,” Bruce Robinson’s adaptation of the early Hunter S. Thompson novel. It could also describe the resulting movie. Depp coaxed Robinson out of retirement to write and direct “The Rum Diary” as a tribute to the author and his late friend. The result is a subpar comic adventure that’s nonetheless admirable for its restrained vision of Thompson in his early gestation period.
Robinson gives the material a light touch that only clicks when its origin story takes shape. While that’s not enough to rescue it from general mediocrity, the “Withnail & I” director delivers a peculiarly amusing prequel to the more significant chaos of Thompson in full bloom (memorably embodied by Depp in “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas”). In “The Rum Diary,” Depp plays a fictionalized version of Thompson without the gonzo bite. That makes the story less excitingly wacky, but it’s ultimately enjoyable for outlining the birth of Thompson’s muckraking attitude.
American journalist Paul Kemp (Depp), Thompson’s alter ego, arrives in bustling San Juan during the late 1950s to work for the flailing English language newspaper The Daily News. Hung over on the first day of the job, he immediately faces the ire of a jaded editor, Lotterman (Richard Jenkins, relishing the opportunity to play against type with a role that calls for extreme overstatement). Fully aware that the paper is a sinking ship, Lotterman assigns Kemp to innumerable blasé stories about the local tourist scene.
Disinterested from the start, Kemp wanders through the landscape in a drunken haze, commiserating with colleagues Sala (Michael Rispoli) and the drug-addled Moburg (Giovanni Ribisi). He eventually meets scheming real estate mogul Sanderson (Aaron Ekchart) and gets suckered into assisting him with a sketchy hotel complex while falling for Sanderson’s arm candy, Chenault (Amber Heard, the cast’s weakest link and a sorely underwritten character).
Establishing Kemp’s world during the messy first hour, “The Rum Diary” tumbles through a series of flimsy non-events strung together by gorgeous scenery. (This issue plagues the novel as well, but Thompson’s prose makes it gel.) Depp, monotonous as ever and dialing down his Thompson impersonation, barely seems present in the role. Over time, however, he’s surrounded by intrigue that glosses over his muted stare.
Kemp’s eventual motivation to take a stand against the corruption of the island’s affluent powers and racist oppression of its working class gives “The Rum Diary” a deeper meaning in its second half, at which point Robinson’s screenplay improves its perceptive powers. Kemp’s transition from careless alcoholic to irreverent avenger takes place with a series of loony moments that hint at the legacy in question.
Even the requisite Thompson hallucination quietly comes and goes. Robinson teases the possibility of a major psychedelic sequence when Sala and Kemp take a mysterious drug, then concludes the scene with a single amusing hallucination. As the Thompson/Kemp revelations arrive slowly, “The Rum Diary” effectively ponders the flaws of mainstream media as an agent of change, explaining Thompson’s need to escape the system and pave his own path.
However, Robinson doesn’t push the material in any inspired direction. “The Rum Diary” stumbles through a few enjoyable moments of slapstick (notably in a scene that finds Kemp in Sala’s lap while escaping police pursuit in a broken vehicle), but it can’t find a way to energize its sense of purpose.
That’s partly because, unlike Thompson’s writings, “The Rum Diary” exists outside his head. It doesn’t assume a first-person voice (with the exception of a random, fleeting voiceover). Robinson takes a step back from the story’s hapless protagonist to observe the evolution of his behavior. That’s both to the movie’s credit and its chief flaw. Kemp’s desperate efforts to cobble together a grassroots publishing effort assumes the form of a loopy adventure and yet it never explodes as advertised. The plot fizzles along with the newspaper at its center.
However, “The Rum Diary” still has enough spirit to turn it into a sufficiently entertaining romp in between the lulls. It’s not essential Thompson, but even Thompson-lite has firm appeal. As the movie approaches a descent into mayhem and then pulls back, it remains — against all odds — a fairly sober history of journalism’s loosest cannon.
[“The Rum Diary” had its East Coast premiere at the Hamptons International Film Festival, which continues through Monday.]
criticWIRE grade: B-
HOW WILL IT PLAY? Set for a release on October 28 by FilmDistrict, “The Rum Diary” is bound to attract crowds interested either in Depp or Thompson, but a generally underwhelming critical reaction and subdued narrative will likely prevent it from gaining much long-term traction.