- - Thursday, October 27, 2011

The novel “The Rum Diary” was a bit of juvenilia written and shopped around unsuccessfully by Hunter S. Thompson before his career as a political journalist caught fire. Set around 1960, it tells the story of Paul Kemp (Johnny Depp), a booze-addled journalist who signs on at the San Juan Star, a last-chance saloon of a newspaper in Puerto Rico.

There he quickly falls in with the most disreputable of his colleagues, photographer Bob Sala (Michael Rispoli) and a comically unproductive reporter named Moberg (Giovanni Ribisi), who enjoys drinking straight ethanol and listening to records of Adolf Hitler’s speeches.

Temptation enters in the form of a developer. Sanderson (Aaron Eckhart) is a square-jawed, smooth-talking ex-newspaperman and crony capitalist who is looking to work his political connections to push through a shady land deal. For reasons that are never adequately explained, Sanderson decides Kemp is the man to write the prospectus that will explain the dream of his private island beachfront resort to potential investors and buyers.

This gives Kemp entree into a world he never imagined, and he’s left to decide whether he wants to slum it with his newspaper buddies and try to convince hard-bitten editor Lotterman (Richard Jenkins) to run his muckraking stories about poverty and environmental degradation, or act as poet laureate for the island’s jet set. The issue is complicated by Sanderson’s gorgeous, fun-loving fiancee, Chenault (Amber Heard), who appears to have a thing for Kemp.

There isn’t much to the story - there never is in Thompson’s works. His style lends itself to memorable descriptions and set pieces, but the cumulative effect of his narratives are transformational to the reader - not to their subjects. That’s probably why Thompson found success with nonfiction reportage, and why he attracted legions of devoted fans.

By all accounts, Mr. Depp is one of those hard-core fans. He played the part of Thompson in the 1998 film version of “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,” and here he slips into the Thompson-like character of Kemp as if into a second skin, with all the attendant twitching, muttering and delirium. To up the ante, Mr. Rispoli steals the show as the cynical, burned-out Sala.

This is British filmmaker Bruce Robinson’s first film since “Jennifer 8” in 1992. He does a fine job imagining the ferment and squalor of crowded San Juan circa 1960. And although Mr. Robinson said there aren’t more than two lines of dialogue taken from the novel “The Rum Diary,” the gonzo spirit of Thompson hovers approvingly over this diverting but sincere Mephistophelean tale of a young writer struggling to find his voice.

TITLE: “The Rum Diary”

CREDITS: Written and directed by Bruce Robinson, based on the novel by Hunter S. Thompson.

RATING: R for profanity, sexual situations and drug use

RUNNING TIME: 120 minutes.

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS