Johnny Depp Drinks With the Ghost of Hunter S. Thompson

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Peter Mountain
Depp's journalist follows the money (i.e. Aaron Eckhart's developer).
The Dinner: Pechugas de Pollo, at La Isla (2320 N.W. Market St.).

The Movie: The Rum Diary, at SIFF Cinema at the Uptown (511 Queen Anne Ave. N.).

The Screenplate: Is it possible to have a man-crush on a dude who's dead? That's one of the questions raised by The Rum Diary, whose star, Johnny Depp, produced the picture in tribute to his friend and literary idol, the late Hunter S. Thompson (1937-2005). As you'll recall, Depp previously starred in the 1998 Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, basically playing Thompson's alter ego, Raoul Duke, a drunken mid-career journalist. This time around he plays Paul Kemp, a drunken young journalist just beginning his career after failing at novel writing. His new gig is at a struggling newspaper in San Juan, Puerto Rico in the prime Cold War year of 1960. Thompson basically held the same position, very briefly, during that time; and then he tried to write a novel about it, The Rum Diary, which sat in his drawer for three decades. Then Depp read it and helped get it published in 1998. (The reviews weren't kind.) The film, shot on location, is a lovely postcard to Puerto Rico, but it also creates a problem in locating appropriate food to eat. Rum drinks are easy--you can order them at any bar. But would it be possible to find white sandy beaches, palm trees, and jerk chicken just a short drive north to Ballard...?

The shrewd folks at La Isla clearly saw The Rum Diary coming (though not, unfortunately, so close as the nearby Majestic Bay.) In fact, and this is getting ahead of the meal, La Isla is hosting a special party for the film at 9 p.m. Tues., Nov. 1 (more details here), with drink specials and vintage cocktails. So you could catch an early show at the SIFF Cinema at the Uptown, Metro, Cinerama, or Big Picture (where the film opens today), then head over to Ballard to drink.

That's what Kemp (Depp's character) and his fellow journalists would do. In a movie with rum in its title, it should come as no surprise that most everyone drinks a lot of rum. And also beer and scotch and anything else close to hand. A minor plot point has an alcoholic fellow newsie (Giovanni Ribisi) stealing the old filters from a rum distillery, so they can make super-strong home-brewed hooch. And yet, The Rum Diary isn't quite the same jolly debauch promised by the trailers. It is, strikingly, a rather old-fashioned movie about youthful idealism in conflict with moneyed greed. There's more fretting about the future of The San Juan Star than boozing--one reason I found the film so dull; it was just like another day at the office. Fifty years ago, when most big American cities had at least two competing newspapers, Thompson was worried about the state of print media. His posthumous concern is so quaint that it's timely again, almost touching. Kemp, clearly representing Thompson in his pre-acid years, arrives in San Juan with a heavily padded résumé but a surprising desire to do good. Though he doesn't speak the language (another fib on his C.V.), he soon gathers that Puerto Rico is a profoundly unequal place, with its American overlords intent on raping the hell out of this tropical paradise.

On which subject: chicken. Mmmm, chicken. Unless you prefer pork. Since cockfighting figures significantly in The Rum Diary (Kemp and company need to win enough cash for a pirate press run to take down the baddies), it puts you in the mood for pollo. Among several tasty chicken dishes at La Isla, we like the Pechugas de Pollo ($14.99), with the orange- and cilantro-marinated breast both grilled and pan-baked. It's a little fancier than jerk chicken and rice, but La Isla isn't aiming for cheap Caribbean fare. The place serves a lot of swell mojitos, and the bar can be fairly crowded right up to the two o'clock close on weekends. (Here's a recent little cocktail report from one of our correspondents.) In fact, it might almost be too fancy for a penurious journalist like Kemp.

Soon reduced to rooming with the newspaper's slovenly but lovable staff photographer (Michael Rispoli), Kemp lives on a beer budget among la gente whose language he doesn't speak. (Nor does the film bother with subtitles, since nobody but the gringos has anything important to say.) When he tries to write an exposé about the island's poverty, his idiot editor (Richard Jenkins) isn't too pleased. Instead, the easy money is offered by a shady PR guy (Aaron Eckhart, supplying the film's little vigor) with a hot fiancée (Amber Heard, hot), leading Kemp into a professional dilemma that few if any reporters have ever actually faced: take the windfall (and the sex, and the booze) or stick to your journalistic principles. Care to guess which option Kemp/Thompson chooses? (Here let it be said that modern journalists aren't bought, we're simply ignored.)

Though The Rum Diary never uncorks much momentum, and it achieves only the period look and not the wit of Mad Men, it's respectful to Thompson's respect for the profession he soon left behind. (That being straight news, whatever your opinion of his following gonzo career and pickled self-caricature.) Depp makes too much of his idol, just as his Kemp makes too much of his trade ("I smell ink!") La Isla is a much better restaurant than The Rum Diary is a movie. But also, The Rum Diary is an excellent travel brochure for Puerto Rico. And if it inspires a midwinter vacation away from soggy Seattle, all the more reason to see it. (That, and Depp's snazzy retro sunglasses, put to better use than he.) But before you fly yourself down to the Caribbean, educate yourself on the rums first at La Isla.

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