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Rum Diary a loving tribute to gonzo master
Depp stars in adaptation of early Hunter S. Thompson novel
Amber Heard, left, and Johnny Depp are shown in a scene from "The Rum Diary." - photo by Peter Mountain

The Rum Diary

Starring: Johnny Depp, Amber Heard, Giovanni Ribisi, Aaron Eckhart, Amaury Nolasco

Rating: R, for language, brief drug use and sexuality

Runtime: 2 hours

Bottom line: A heartfelt, funny tribute

Hunter S. Thompson wrote "The Rum Diary" in the early '60s when he was a young man and green writer. It was the second novel he had completed, and he couldn't get either work published. "The Rum Diary" didn't make it into print until 1998.

So it's reasonable to wonder why a filmmaker would adapt a novel that publishers, critics and fans alike consider a minor, unrepresentative work.

The novel "The Rum Diary" is far removed from the razor-tongued insight for which Thompson is known. It's about a young reporter in Puerto Rico working for a dying newspaper, meeting the power players of the island and falling for the wrong woman.

It's perfectly clear that this is an author who hadn't yet found his voice. Thompson has always written stunning sentences, and he would later develop the ability to twist actual people and events into something absurd and grotesque, but he did it in a way which captured the truth and essence of reality better than any straight reportage ever could.

He would develop a style of journalism dubbed "gonzo journalism," wherein the author becomes part of the action and the story. But equally important to the gonzo style are Thompson's expressionistic descriptions and his simultaneously meandering and focused prosaic sojourns.

"The Rum Diary" as a novel finds the future icon stuck in a conventional yarn that inevitably dulled his sword, deflected his jabs and limited his stream of consciousness trips into our dark hearts.

The best thing about the film "The Rum Diary" is that writer-director Bruce Robinson made the young author's shortcomings part of the narrative.

In this adaptation, Paul Kemp (Johnny Depp) works for the San Juan Star circa the late '50s. He is young but already afflicted with doubt about whether he will ever find his literary voice and a cynicism about whether journalism has any social or political force. He also drinks heavily.

Upon arriving at this dying paper, Kemp meets a photojournalist named Sala (Michael Rispoli), who also has seen his ideals buried in failure and futility. They bond instantly and become the buddies around whom most of the comedy is built.

Another reporter, Moburg (Giovanni Ribisi), is much farther gone than Kemp or Sala. Moburg is a stumbling addict with disgusting hygiene who frequents a witch doctor.

Kemp, Sala and Moburg all do their best to avoid their editor, Lotterman (Richard Jenkins), a newsroom despot with a bad wig who embodies everything Kemp never wants to be.

Kemp's principles are tested when he meets Sanderson (Aaron Eckhart), an unscrupulous land developer who wants Kemp to insert strategic propaganda into his articles to help convince the impoverished and exploited locals into allowing Sanderson's company to build hotels on one of Puerto Rico's most pristine, cherished islands.

Meanwhile, Kemp falls in love with Sanderson's girlfriend, the impossibly beautiful and capricious Chenault (Amber Heard).

The story is restrained from beginning to end, which is likely what will divide audiences. Those looking for the usual love triangle with slapstick thrown in will leave only moderately satisfied.

Hunter S. Thompson fans, however, will recognize that what we're really watching is the development of the writer we know and love. Kemp and Sala are clearly stand-ins for Raoul Duke and Dr. Gonzo. The duo have run-ins with the police and go on a hallucinogenic drug trip.

The uneven story bounces between entertaining, tense and tedious. But along the way we are treated to a handful of tangential scenes that remind us of what a brilliant wordsmith Thomspon could be. But the disjointed storytelling undermines several memorable performances.

Ultimately, "The Rum Diary" is about two things. It's an origin story that lends insight into the forces that would mold Thompson into the iconoclastic inventor of gonzo journalism, and it's a heartfelt goodbye to both the man and the myth.

On that level, it's a moving experience that overcomes the technical flaws.

Jeff Marker is a media studies professor at Gainesville State College.