I was not a fan of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, to put it mildly. While I have a mild degree of interest in gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson, I have little patience for his drug-addled experiences—even with Johnny Depp as the writer’s fictionalized alter ego. Perhaps that’s why I responded better to The Rum Diary: based on another autobiographical Thompson novel, about his younger days, it’s Fear and Loathing-Lite, fueled more by alcohol than narcotics.
The setting is San Juan, Puerto Rico in 1960, where Depp shows up for a job on a local newspaper a day late, getting off on the wrong foot with ill-tempered editor Richard Jenkins. He agrees to room with fellow reporter Michael Rispoli and falls into a drink-sodden mist, occasionally fired up by the actions and musings of crazed—
—ex-reporter Giovanni Ribisi. He also attracts the attention of Aaron Eckhart, a local “fixer” who hires Depp to do p.r. work for a secret hotel development that, like almost everything on the island, will pamper the tourists and exploit the natives. (Passive and amoral, he also falls in love with Eckhart’s sexy girlfriend, Amber Heard.) Strange to say, Depp seems a little old for this role; then again, only an actor as skillful as he could play such a dissolute character and make him vaguely likable, or at worst, tolerable.
Writer-director Bruce Robinson, the auteur of Withnail & I who hasn’t had any screen credits in a while, deftly captures the double-edged atmosphere of Puerto Rico—a vacation paradise for some, an overheated cauldron of trouble for others. This is a film that depends more on tone and atmosphere than narrative strength. It won’t be to everybody’s taste, but I found it diverting and easy to take. I certainly like this tipsy Depp character better than Capt. Jack Sparrow.