Before he became the drug-addled Dr. Gonzo, Hunter S. Thompson simply drank and smoked cigarettes like most writers. This is the Thompson that Johnny Depp portrays in The Rum Diary. Watch the trailer below
Thompson’s 1998 book has been brought to the screen by Bruce Robinson (Withnail & I), who directed and wrote the screenplay. Paul Kemp (Depp) arrives in San Juan in 1960. A budding journalist, he’s hired by the Star newspaper to write fluff pieces and horoscopes.
The Rum Diary is the perfect title for this book and movie, because it takes place in a thoroughly alcoholic state, fueled by copious bottles of locally made moonshine. Kemp pals around with slovenly photographer Bob Salas (Michael Rispoli), getting into drunken adventures.
The main storyline revolves around hotel construction on a nearby island. Kemp’s drawn in as a writer for the project by slick speculator Sanderson (Aaron Eckhart), who’s dating the siren Chenault (Amber Heard). Kemp and Chenault can’t keep their eyes off each other, leading to significant sexual tension.
The only drug taken besides booze is what appears to be liquid LSD, provided by Moburg (Giovanni Ribisi), a psychotic Star staffer. Kemp and Salas space out, but nothing like we’d see in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas a decade later. Thompson had yet to cross over into the counterculture in 1960. He was a maverick, but still had much to prove. The Rum Diary is mostly about Thompson’s desire to break free of the establishment, to not play by the rules.
Depp has now channeled Thompson in two adaptations of his work and narrated Alex Gibney’s Gonzo documentary. Our view of Thompson these days has almost as much to do with Depp’s deft characterizations as the books themselves. Certainly, Thompson couldn’t argue with the handsome Depp as his doppleganger. The two have little in common physically, but Depp successfully navigates the twists and turns of Thompson frenetic brain. It helps that they spent so much time together before Thompson died in 2005.
The Rum Diary may disappoint Fear and Loathing fans hoping to find a drugged-out travelogue. But this is just the beginning of Thompson’s long, strange trip.