More important than being Johnny Depp’s reunion with the work of Hunter S. Thompson, The Rum Diary is the first film written and directed by Bruce Robinson in nearly 20 years, and his first good one since 1989’s How to Get Ahead in Advertising. Most cherished for the delightfully sordid Withnail & I, Robinson has two gifts that go together curiously well: an elegant way with words and a love for rolling around in filth while on some combination of cheap booze and skeezy drugs. The Rum Diary only allows him to make use of the latter—the prose, from a different breed of wordsmith, is already present—but Robinson’s inability to pass up a good, sketchy time serves him, the material and those game enough to follow the film down its grimy rabbit hole well.
Depp plays Thompson stand-in Paul Kemp, who arrives—brash, idealistic, yet already hooked on hotel mini-bar hooch—in Puerto Rico to work at an English-language newspaper. Instead he finds an editor (Richard Jenkins, with toupee) who’s given up, resigning his rag to advertisers who wish them not to report any actual news. Stuck on the horoscope beat, Kemp spends the majority of the film killing time by getting into seedy misadventures, often with the staff photographer (Michael Rispoli, who functions as Benicio del Toro-lite, but will do in a pinch).
What follows is a mess—narratively and thematically unfocused, generally inconsistent, and with a strangely distant (although frequently goofy) performance from its lead actor. It’s also frequently great fun. Kemp & co. spend most of the film inadvertently pissing off locals, guzzling 470-proof alcohol and testing drugs typically used to torture communists. This is the kind of rudely humored lark where a sweaty sex scene is interrupted by someone playing a record of Hitler, and where the big, heroic climax involves a trip to the local cockfighting ring.
The characters (and their filmmaker) eventually get their shit together and try to use journalism to expose the corrupt (namely businessmen led by Aaron Eckhart). But they’re too late to make a difference, which is the film’s closest thing to a point. The Rum Diary operates as an origin story, with Kemp/Thompson learning that he must balance social consciousness with more disreputable behavior. More importantly, it features Depp breathing fire onto a police officer’s face.