Rum Diary was a poorly understood, and therefore poorly received film. Too many people seemed to expect psychedalia, like the chaotic, celebrity-strewn Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Johnny Depp’s first outing as Hunter S. Thompson, from 1998. But that unwatchable mess was directed by a creative incontinent, Terry Gilliam. Rum Diary was written and directed by Bruce Robinson, the author of Withnail and I, an artist capable of delivering both coherent images and coherent thoughts. It isn’t a blurry valentine to mind- and mood-altering substances; it’s a tribute to Thompson as a fearless, articulate, and principled journalist who was as hell-raising with his body as he was hell-bent in his mission.
To be sure, being based on a Thompson novel and brought to the screen by Robinson, Rum Diary does not lack for authoritative text on substance use. But the real subject is journalism— investigative journalism—and the drunk and druggy scenes serve symbolic as well as realistic purpose: the men working at Puerto Rico’s San Juan Star are as dissipated in life as the newspaper is dissipated as a voice of and for the people.
Richard Jenkins is masterful as Lotterman, the editor-in-chief, whose first concern about hiring Kemp (Depp) is that he’s not “creative,” i.e., gay. Jenkins is so good that he almost steals scenes from Depp, a feat previously achieved only by Al Pacino as a mobster and Bill Nighy as a lobster. Lotterman’s rambling muskrat toupée isn’t even needed to add comedy to his character. His every glance, every sneered remark reveals his contempt for his job, his newspaper, and his subordinates.
And no wonder. His staff journalists all drink like Anthony Haden-Guest and Peter Fallow combined, and are played by actors in Jenkins’ league:
Giovanni Ribisi as Moberg, a bearded, Hitler-obsessed has-been so close to the edge that he distills “470 proof” alcohol, which proves useful for self-destruction as well as self-defense. Moberg is a voice for Hunter S., as they all are: “This country was built on genocide and slavery. We killed all the black guys over here and then we shipped in new black guys of our own. And then we brought in Jesus like a bar of soap.”
The exceptionally gifted and versatile Michael Rispoli as Sala, a composite character extracted from the novel, the staff photographer and a cockfight aficionado who knows San Juan inside out, and is assigned to show Kemp the ropes. “Do not confuse love with lust, nor drunkenness with judgment.”
But it is Depp, with his respect for Thompson, who keeps this movie on the rails…