If there is a better actor than Johnny Depp working today, I challenge anyone to name him. Unlike many stars who tend to play the same character with a different name again and again (Think George Clooney.) or even some who are so bad that they can’t even portray one role over and over (Think Keanu Reeves.), Depp consistently steps into unusual parts and plays all of them brilliantly.
If you doubt what I’m saying, imagine watching either Clooney or Reeves as Capt. Jack Sparrow or Ichabod Crane or Sweeney Todd or John Dillinger or Gilbert Grape or Edward Scissorhands or the Mad Hatter. The list could go on forever. Now I’m not saying that Depp is the only great actor in Hollywood, but I am saying that his incredible range and versatility may be unmatched by any of his fellow performers.
Depp’s latest memorable creation for the silver screen is Paul Kemp, the main character of “The Rum Diary,” a film based upon the novel of the same name by the late Dr. Hunter S. Thompson, who probably is best known as the father of gonzo journalism. Stand by for a definition.
Whereas conventional journalists strive for objectivity in their reporting, Thompson developed a style of writing in which the reporter makes uses copious description and often includes himself as a character in the story. William Faulkner said, “Fiction is often the best fact,” and Thompson incorporated this belief into his writing. Gonzo journalism ultimately evolved into new journalism, a style popularized by Tom Wolfe. Thus, although the pieces by Thompson and Wolfe are grounded in fact, they often read like fiction.
Thompson, who shot himself to death on Feb. 20, 2005, once explained in an online interview with The Atlantic why he chose to develop a unique style of reporting by saying, “I don’t get any satisfaction out of the old traditional journalist’s view: ‘I just covered the story. I just gave it a balanced view.’ Objective journalism is one of the main reasons American politics has been allowed to be so corrupt for so long. You can’t be objective about Nixon.”
Depp and Thompson were friends, and during one of his visits to Thompson’s house, Depp discovered the forgotten manuscript of “The Rum Diary” and convinced Thompson to publish it and ultimately adapt it for the screen. The novel is Thompson’s autobiographical account of his 1960 experience in Puerto Rico, where he went hoping to land a job with the San Juan Star newspaper. Although Thompson didn’t get the job in real life, Kemp, his fictional alter ego in the novel, is hired as a reporter, and that’s where the film begins.
Kemp shows up for his interview at the newspaper wearing dark glasses to cover his bloodshot eyes from a night spent drinking. But he can’t fool Mr. Lotterman (Richard Jenkins), the editor of the paper who asks Kemp just how much he drinks.
“The high end of social,” Kemp replies.
And so that Kemp will have a clear idea of what he’s getting into Lotterman says, “You see the problem with this newspaper, Mr. Kemp, is that I am among many who don’t enjoy reading it. We have an ailing circulation, and I just have to look around this building to understand why. Lack of commitment and too much self-indulgence.”
Kemp’s first assignment at the paper is to write the horoscope column, but he ultimately graduates to bigger stories, and he also becomes good friends with Sala (Michael Rispoli), who works at the newspaper as a photographer. Like Kemp, his newfound friend has a propensity for tipping the bottle, and the two of them soon are serious drinking buddies.
During his travels around the island, Kemp one night meets Chenault (Amber Heard), the gorgeous fiancée of a guy named Sanderson (Aaron Eckhart), a corrupt entrepreneur who has designs on building resort hotels for the wealthy at the expense of the island’s residents. After one look at Chenault, Kemp falls hopelessly in love with her, and this complicates his relationship with Sanderson, who wants him to put a favorable spin on newspaper stories about his business dealings.
“The Rum Diary” is not a film for everyone, but I thoroughly enjoyed it because I am familiar with Thompson’s work and because of my background in journalism. However, I doubt that the film will appeal to those who are looking for a lot of action and mystery.
The film is basically a character study of Kemp, and Depp’s portrayal of him is spot on as usual. Actually Depp portrayed another of Thompson’s alter egos in “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,” and so the role is not one that was unfamiliar to him. What makes Depp such a superb actor is that you never have the feeling he is acting. His speech and mannerisms are consistently natural, and he has that rare ability to become character rather than just portraying him. And Depp imbues Kemp with the perfect blend of seriousness and humor.
Late in the film, Kemp is sitting at his typewriter, and he defines his purpose as a writer that ultimately became Thompson’s credo.
“I want to make a promise to you the reader, and I don’t know whether I can fulfill it tomorrow or even the day after that, but I put the bastards of his world on notice that I do not have their best interests at heart. I will try and speak for my reader. That is my promise, and it will be a voice made of ink and rage.”
Depp, however, is not the only one in the film who turns in an outstanding performance. In fact, all of the supporting players are excellent. Heard exudes sexuality, and the sexual tension between Chenault and Kemp virtually crackles.
Jenkins also is extremely effective as the paper’s beleaguered editor, and Riposli’s portrayal of Sala is at once comical and sad. Eckhart succeeds nicely in making Sanderson sufficiently despicable, and Giovanni Ribisi’s turn as an embittered alcoholic reporter is nothing short of brilliant.
The film also captures the era of the 1960s beautifully with great sets, props, and costumes.
Chalk up another onscreen triumph for Depp, and record a score of an eight for “The Rum Diary.” It’s unfortunate that Thompson did not live long enough to see the film, but in the production notes Depp said that he thinks his friend would have beeen pleased with the way the movie turned out.
“I felt Hunter with me throughout the shoot. It was great to be close to him again, in that sense; it was great to have him around me. I knew what he would say in every circumstance. I just knew, because I knew him very well. If he’d seen the finished film, he’d be whooping. He’d be making those Hunter noises that anyone close to Hunter knew. They meant, ‘Yes man, we’ve done it! Fantastic!’ He would have been celebrating. Ultimately, the film is a celebration of Hunter, his language, and his discovery of his voice. He’d be super happy, I’m sure.”