BASED ON THE TRAILERS, one could scarcely be blamed for thinking The Rum Diary was going to be Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas all over again. There stands Johnny Depp, after all, starring as another shade of Hunter S. Thompson in a trashed hotel room with bloodshot eyes. But Diary—based on the early novel Thompson abandoned until its eventual publication in the '90s—is only somewhat autobiographical, and its dedication to its characters' extremes of alcohol consumption is given stiff competition from the story's real meat—that of a writer finding his guiding light.
Kemp (Depp) arrives in Puerto Rico an alcoholic. Little is said of his life in New York, or what led him to take a job at a rapidly failing English-language newspaper in the midst of the San Juan clash of abject poverty and high-rise hotels. A sense of purpose it wasn't, and Kemp spends the film's first half sampling the local debauchery and shaking hands with the moneyed bad guys. If you're looking for the promised clusterfucks, you'll get them, from a scene in which Kemp winds up spitting fire into a cop's face to another in which he and his roommate, best friend, and photographer Sala (Michael Rispoli) drop LSD into each other's eyeballs. Throughout, the living corpse of Moburg (a nearly unrecognizable Giovanni Ribisi) shuffles as comic relief, his brain half eaten by booze, his dick infested with what Kemp determines is not merely the clap but "a standing ovation."
Nonetheless, the point of the film is Kemp's, and presumably, to some extent, Thompson's grasp of how to maneuver as a journalist through a world besotted with corruption. In between hitting cockfights with Sala, Kemp photographs kids living in junkyards and produces honest-to-god journalism covering the unjust byproducts of Puerto Rico's tourist industry, untaxed corporate dollars, and industrial pollution.
There's no paucity of modern relevance, and Diary could be read as a pep talk for aspiring news journalists. For all its roughhouse antics, Diary's an earnest, somewhat naïve transmission of the reckless young reporter Thompson once was.