It was Johnny Depp who found Hunter S Thompson's abandoned, half-forgotten manuscript for The Rum Diary, while rummaging around in the writer's basement. Leading to its belated 1998 publication, some 40 years after it was written, the Pirates of the Caribbean star is now the man responsible for bringing it to the big screen.
Fans of the Gonzo journalist may already be recoiling, given the sour taste left by Depp's previous stab at honouring his friend – the wildly uneven Terry Gilliam-directed take on Thompson's seminal Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. But The Rum Diary is a much more palatable affair, largely thanks to Depp's masterstroke – luring Bruce Robinson, the writer/director of the cult British comedy Withnail & I, out of retirement.
Having bowed out of Hollywood 19 years ago, after he saw his thriller Jennifer 8 mangled beyond recognition by the studio, Robinson's long-awaited return shows he's lost none of his ear for razor-sharp dialogue (one character is described as possessing "blackheads like Braille"). Withnail devotees will be delighted, with the film exploring similar themes of male booze-addled bonding.
What Thompson fans will make of it is anyone's guess – but they should be sated. Robinson claims his adaptation contains only three lines by the writer "but the stench of him is all over it". And, in truth, it does seem as though he's managed to capture his spirit, distil his essence and bottle the incandescent rage that tore through so much of his prose.
Set in 1960, Depp plays Paul Kemp, a rarely sober newspaper journalist who pitches up in Puerto Rico to land a job working for a crumbling San Juan rag, penning horoscopes. He finds lodgings with two colleagues, the slimy photographer Bob Sala (Michael Rispoli) and the ethanol-swilling crime correspondent Moburg (Ribisi), a man who makes Robinson's dishevelled Withnail character look positively teetotal.
With Kemp a thinly veiled Thompson alter-ego, there is decadence aplenty – not least when he and Sala take military-grade LSD (causing a CGI-created hallucination, involving a tongue that grows like a creeper plant). But unlike Gilliam's Fear and Loathing, Robinson holds back on the drug-hazed journey into oblivion, keeping a clear head to aim his sights elsewhere.
The Rum Diary paints Kemp out to be a good-natured idealist, who falls in with – and then rails against – a group of wealthy venture capitalists who are looking to exploit the island's commercial potential, led by the shady developer Sanderson (Eckhart). Kemp briefly seems intoxicated by his wealth, but it's his flirtatious girlfriend Chenault (Heard) who proves more of a draw.
Depp spends many of these scenes looking like a Ralph Lauren model, tanned, slick and light years away from the edgy actor of Ed Wood and Dead Man. But his gift for comedy hasn't deserted him – the scene where he and Sala are riding into town in their vandalised car is one of the funniest set pieces I've seen all year. If the hotchpotch of comedy, politics and romance doesn't always gel, it's a film with its heart firmly in the right place.