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The Rum Diary

Depp, ‘Rum Diary’ try too hard to be gonzo

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By Ty Burr
Globe Staff / October 28, 2011

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‘The Rum Diary’’ has been retroactively Hunter S. Thompson-ized. And not for the better.

Back in the early 1960s, well before he ascended to fame as the author of 1971’s “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas’’ and the sardonic face of gonzo journalism, Thompson wrote a novel about his days working for a two-bit newspaper in San Juan, Puerto Rico. The book finally came out in 1998, an enjoyable read and very much a young man’s work, filled with youthful scorn and self-disgust. It doesn’t have much to do with the later writing; for one thing, narrator Paul Kemp’s drug of choice is still booze.

But that won’t do for the hordes of Thompson acolytes who expect drug-addled 300-pound Samoan attorneys, mescaline visions of apocalypse, and Johnny Depp channeling the spirit of Raoul Duke. Writer-director Bruce Robinson therefore takes it upon himself to toss out most of the book’s dialogue and at least one major character and more or less start from scratch. Kemp (Depp) is still a down-at-the-heels journalist bingeing his way through the post-Batista Caribbean, but his running mates are more familiarly crazed.

The paper’s photographer, Sala (a very enjoyable Michael Rispoli), is now a teddy bear reprobate who joins Kemp on an acid trip that’s the movie’s visual highlight, and the character of Moberg, a depraved newspaperman whom Giovanni Ribisi renders as a sort of expatriate Renfrew from the “Dracula’’ movies, now listens to Nazi speeches and belches fireballs of 400-proof rum.

This is fodder for the frat boys, and the plot structure Robinson has laid on top of the frivolity is awfully conventional. Kemp falls in with a slick entrepreneur named Sanderson (an underused Aaron Eckhart) with a hotel deal in the works; what the hero really wants a crack at is Sanderson’s girlfriend, a beautiful sybarite played by Amber Heard.

Robinson made a delightfully bent 1987 comedy called “Withnail & I’’ and quickly floundered (“How to Get Ahead in Advertising,’’ “Jennifer 8’’); “The Rum Diary’’ is his return to directing after 19 years in the wilderness. The movie is solid twisted fun for about two-thirds of its 120 minutes, until you realize that it’s not going anywhere and that the script consists almost wholly of forced gonzo-isms (“Your tongue is like an accusatory giblet’’) and pointed but obvious observations about ugly Americans in paradise.

Robinson also feels he has to shoehorn Thompson’s longstanding hatred of Richard M. Nixon into the mix, and “The Rum Diary’’ ultimately becomes an ordinary coming-of-age saga in which Kemp rouses himself from hedonism and dedicates himself to Doing the Right Thing (while also Getting the Girl) just in time for the late 1960s.

Depp, whose portrayal of Raoul Duke in the 1998 film version of “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas’’ is rightly and wrongly encrusted in legend, takes it upon himself to play the artist as a young sot, a challenge for an actor pushing 50. He’s believably withdrawn in the early scenes and entertainingly bonkers in the mid-section - it’s when Kemp is lit up with renewed purpose that the performance feels phony. “The Rum Diary’’ works itself into a pitch of hero worship that sends Kemp off to fight the good fight against “the bastards,’’ ignoring the fact that in Thompson’s bleak view “the bastards’’ almost always won.

In short, the movie version of “The Rum Diary’’ is more interested in idealism than entropy. I’m not sure what the late Thompson’s response would have been, but I’m guessing it might involve a shotgun.

Ty Burr can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.

THE RUM DIARY Directed by: Bruce Robinson

Written by: Robinson, based on the novel by Hunter S. Thompson

Starring: Johnny Depp, Aaron Eckhart, Amber Heard, Michael Rispoli, Richard Jenkins, Giovanni Ribisi

At: Boston Common, Fenway, suburbs

Running time: 120 minutes

Rated: R (language, brief drug use, sensuality)

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