Based on the debut tome of gonzo novelist Hunter S. Thompson, The Rum Diary is sort of the filmic equivalent of an unexpected blast of jazz — an amusing slice of tropical noir beholden to little more than its own snappy rhythms. The movie is loosely built around a land-grab plot, but generally three parts soused character study to every one part awakened protagonist ambition, instead just perfectly happy to surf along on the strength of its enjoyably cracked characterizations and rich dialogue.
The story follows Paul Kemp (Johnny Depp), an unhinged functional alcoholic and itinerant journalist who travels from New York City to Puerto Rico to write for a rundown local newspaper that even his new editor, Lotterman (Richard Jenkins), admits is a shell of a publication, and likely to soon shutter. Making friends with a pair of coworkers that could be characterized as Drunk and Drunker (Michael Rispoli and Giovanni Ribisi, respectively), Paul soon crosses paths with Sanderson (Aaron Eckhart), a shady businessman who regards the island’s natural beauty as “God’s idea of money.” Sanderson pitches Paul a sort of “advertorial” deal to drum up phony public support for a massive property development scheme. Paul considers it, but complicating the newly felt pangs of this ethical dilemma is his growing infatuation with Chenault (Amber Heard), Sanderson’s scorching hot but hard-to-read fiancé. Are her flirtations true, or part of some set-up? And does Paul even care?
There’s a pungent aroma that comes off of The Rum Diary, capturing as it does this particular late-Eisenhower era of journalism, with cigarettes in the newsroom and flasks in every jacket pocket. It’s no surprise that the movie is also eminently quotable (“You have a tongue like an accusatory giblet!” rants Paul when he trips on an especially strong drug with a colleague), given that it represents the first film behind the camera in almost two decades from Withnail and I and How To Get Ahead in Advertising writer-director Bruce Robinson, who knows outrageousness well. If you miss the woozy, drunken charm of Depp’s turn in the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie, before its sequels became bloated special effects reels, this shot of Rum — hardly essential but still a lot of fun — will bring back pleasant memories. (Film District, R, 120 minutes)