Peter Mountain/Courtesy Film District
En español | Hunter S. Thompson made one of his first attempts at writing a novel when he was in his early 20s, after failed stints in the Air Force, as a copy boy at Time magazine and as a newspaper reporter in San Juan, Puerto Rico. That last job was the basis for Hunter’s The Rum Diary, a semi-autobiographical novel that remained unpublished until the late 1990s. That’s when Thompson’s pal Johnny Depp allegedly found the manuscript in the author’s home while prepping to play Thompson in the 1998 film version of Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. The Rum Diary is, in a sense, a prequel to Fear and Loathing, and while it lacks some of the zealous, wacky energy of Thompson’s later written works and their film versions, it seems justifiably subdued — if early alcoholic excess can, in the context of Hunter Thompson’s life, be considered that.
See also: Gonzo — The Life of Hunter S. Thompson
The central character in The Rum Diary is journalist Paul Kemp (a thinly veiled Thompson), played by Johnny Depp, who at 48 still looks young enough to pass as someone in his third decade. Depp instills in Kemp/Thompson a grounded realism: Who woulda thought the infamously bombastic Hunter Thompson once thought and felt like a mortal human being? Or that he once had a low-enough alcohol tolerance to suffer a hangover so nasty that he declined drinks the next day? Which isn’t to say he didn’t party hearty in those early years.
Hard on his job-front luck, Kemp shows up bleary-eyed for an interview with Puerto Rico’s San Juan Star. The paper’s editor-in-chief, Lotterman (Richard Jenkins, who’s usually terrific, seems too forcefully overwrought here), suffers no fools, and although he hires Kemp, he warns him to cut back on the booze. Kemp befriends photographer Sala (Michael Rispoli, who played Big Joe in Kick-Ass), and the two share a decrepit apartment with Moburg, a crime reporter (weirdly, none of these characters seems to have a first name). Moburg purportedly exhibits alcohol-and-drug-related psychoses, but, as portrayed by Giovanni Ribisi (Avatar, Saving Private Ryan), Moburg comes off as overplayed and unrealistic. Between carousing the island (populated by surly locals and a bunch of pleasure-seeking expatriates), drinking and dropping LSD (in one scene, Johnny Depp’s tongue becomes a writhing, twisting snake), Kemp and Sala meet Sanderson (played by the gorgeous Aaron Eckhart of The Dark Knight fame), an American businessman with plans to cheat the locals out of the chance to develop a pristine stretch of coastline into a hotel complex. Sanderson baits Kemp with his beautiful, voluptuous fiancée Chenault (Amber Heard), and asks him to write positively about his development plans in exchange for … something unclear.
The moral dilemma Kemp faces should be the heart of the story, but director/writer Bruce Robinson (familiar with substance abuse as a subject matter given his work on Withnail and I), chooses instead to present Kemp’s personal crossroads as a quiet subplot. Robinson came to The Rum Diary after Depp, who’s also a producer on the movie, lured him back into the business after a decade-long absence from film. Taking a subtler approach to the material, Robinson avoids the exaggerated, caricatured portrait of Thompson we all know so well, and focuses on the island environment and the early influences that began to shape a young man who would eventually develop the larger-than-life personality that would consume him.
Thompson committed suicide in 2005 at the age of 67. The Rum Diary is dedicated to him, and, though it provides just slight insight into his early years, it is still a fairly interesting piece of his story, set in a colorful locale, populated by some actors worth watching.