When gonzo was born
Johnny Depp is perhaps done cavorting in the high seas. The lavish—and by the end, gratuitous—Pirates of the Caribbean instalments sucked the life out of this gifted actor. After being away from thoughtful, engrossing cinema, which he so aptly fits into, Depp’s role as Paul Kemp in The Rum Diary is a welcome change.
In this independent film, written and directed by Bruce Robinson (famous for writing and directing the 1986 film Withnail and I, the tragi-comic story of an alcoholic actor living in squalid Camden, London), Depp doesn’t, however, appear to be savouring his role much.
The crisply written film, infused with wry wit and pathos, is based on the novel of the same title, written by the guru of what came to be known as gonzo journalism in the 1960s, Hunter S. Thompson.
Riveting: Johnny Depp in The Rum Diary. Depp gives a lukewarm performance.
Depp happens to be Thompson’s close friend and in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998), based on Thompson’s drug-hazed adventures covering middle America, Depp played the journalist with immersive passion.
In this novel, Thompson is on his way to finding his voice, and Depp can’t entirely communicate the character’s naivete. Parallels to the earlier film are a few scenes in which Kemp experiments with drugs. A surrealist episode involves Kemp hallucinating about his photographer friend’s elongated tongue attacking him—hilarious and trippy.
Kemp moves from New York city to Puerto Rico to work at The San Juan Star, a decadent, ill-fated newspaper edited by a neurotic and bitter man (Richard Jenkins), who is desperate for fresh blood. The paper’s slovenly photographer is played by Michael Rispoli—a cynic who is also looking for a last chance. Its religion reporter, completely corroded by alcohol and drugs, and obsessed with Hitler, is the brilliant actor Giovanni Ribisi. In the end, he is one of the film’s weak moral voices.
Kemp is a lazy hack whom the editor entrusts with writing the paper’s horoscope and reporting on American establishments. As the editor grudgingly declares, “The editorial policy of the newspaper is owned by the (American) dream.”
It is the 1960s’ Puerto Rico and American money is making inroads into it, and threatening to destroy its natural beauty and the aspirations of the local population which thrives on its coastal economy. Kemp gets into the city’s swish set, through a slick American PR man (Aaron Eckhart) and his wife, played by Amber Heard, who he falls in love with.
Kemp is enticed into writing about a construction project which flouts environmental rules and he almost sells out. Kemp’s transition from a spineless, drugs-and-alcohol slave to a conscientious journalist is sudden and largely unjustified. But the film works because of its pace, crisp writing and some beautifully executed moments.
Thompson was a paranoid young man in his 20s (Depp is a jarring misfit to the actual character’s age), fearing going over the hill. His life-long engagement with characters who are arrogant, alcoholic and psychotic begins in this phase. The Rum Diary, the novel, was rejected numerous times before it finally got published in the late 1990s—long after he had established a kind of journalism that was written without any claims of objectivity, and in which the writer is as much a character in his own story as those he is writing about. It was spearheaded in the US by Thompson and Tom Wolfe.
The end of The Rum Diary is also the end of Thompson’s non-committal attitude towards his own writing. While navigating the rot in Puerto Rico, Kemp realizes that the man on the street is fast losing out to the ruling class sold to American gloss, which is why this story is important. He realizes, and writes on a broken typewriter, “There’s no American dream. Just a piss puddle of greed...I want a voice made of ink and rage.”
So the film explains the impulses behind the school of journalism which Thompson became famous for. It was fuelled by a desire to chronicle what a polished, edited piece of journalism perhaps could not achieve—a personable style of telling the truth.
Depp’s portrayal of Thompson is convincing only in parts. We meet him first in a hotel room, being woken up by the hotel staff. Reeling under a hangover, he stumbles out of bed, unable to recall the violently inebriated night behind him. Next, he is sipping from a miniature vodka bottle in a taxi, on his way to The San Juan Star, which incidentally attracts stone-pelting protesters outside its doors every day.
This is a lukewarm performance, rescued only by some scenes where Depp displays winning confidence in pulling off the character’s compassion and cynicism. But the film’s crackling supporting cast compensates for what the lead role lacks. It is a group of characters defeated by politics and ideology, who have given up on their last chance of making a difference to the people they write about. Rispoli and Ribisi portray this hopelessness with amazing vigour. Ribisi also adopts a physicality to lend his character its pathos.
Overall, because of the idiosyncrasies of its characters, and the equations among them, The Rum Diary is a riveting watch.
The Rum Diary released in theatres on Friday.