VOD Spotlight: “The Rum Diary” is Johnny Depp’s salute to Hunter S. Thompson

There’s something gratifying about the friendship that developed between author and infamous gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson and Johnny Depp. Maybe it’s because it’s easy to imagine Thompson spewing abuse at a Hollywood icon of Depp’s stature. Or maybe it’s because it gives Depp’s fans the security that, yes, he really is kind of a weird guy in real life. Whatever it is, fans of Depp and Thompson should be grateful for The Rum Diary — both the book and the film.

Johnny Depp stars in "The Rum Diary"The Rum Diary was written in the early 1960s, before Thompson got caught up in the tumult of the years to come. The story draws at least in part on Thompson’s experiences when he took his own journalistic flight to Puerto Rico in the ’50s. Depp plays the young, Thompson-esque reporter Paul Kemp, who arrives in San Juan as a freelancer to the local paper that’s surviving by pandering to the vain interests of American mainland tourists who populate the landscape.

Kemp meets a bizarre mix of people on the staff and elsewhere, from fast friend and co-conspirator Sala (Michael Rispoli) and the wildly poetic inebriate Moburg (Giovanni Ribisi) to sly and sleazy PR man Sanderson (Aaron Eckhart). As Kemp gets lost in the local culture — and falls in lust with Sanderson’s girlfriend (Amber Heard) — he tries to balance his own interests with those of his job, an invitation from Sanderson to a crooked development deal, and his dedication as a journalist.

As anyone familiar with Thompson’s work would expect, The Rum Diary is full of alcohol- and violence-fueled high jinks. A beautifully shot scene involving Kemp spitting fire on a group of would-be assailants from out of the sunroof of a moving car is particularly memorable and consistent with the sort of mayhem for which Thompson was known.

There are cockfights, a few hilariously haphazard car chases, and an arguably requisite scene involving liquid hallucinogens. All of it gives The Rum Diary that distinctive Thompson flourish and color, and makes the film much more entertaining. But we also see Kemp observing the perversity with which a group of American developers plan to deprive the native people’s access to the beaches of their island with profitable, exclusive resort hotels.

Kemp watches with disgust as the schemers as well as his boss at the paper blithely ignore the increasing suffering of the locals, and in him, a fire starts. It’s in this disparity and Kemp’s resulting inner conflict that we get the heart of The Rum Diary. In that fire we see the root of what drives Kemp — and ultimately Thompson — to use his wits and words to slay the would-be giants in print. And in that initial quest to go after “the bastards,” we see the genesis of one of the most extraordinary 20th-century figures ever to put the pen to the page.

“The Rum Diary” is available starting Feb. 14 on Video On Demand. Check your cable system for availability.


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