The Rum Diary
Starring: Johnny Depp, Amber Heard, Aaron Eckhart, Richard Jenkins, Michael Rispoli, Giovanni Ribisi
Directed by Bruce Robinson
Based on the book by Hunter S. Thompson
Opening with a red plane soaring over a sparkling blue sea, backed by the smooth crooning of Dean Martin, it doesn’t take long for The Rum Diary to transport us to Puerto Rico in the early 1960s.
Or at least Puerto Rico through the eyes of journalist Paul Kemp (Depp), who we first meet thoroughly hung over in a darkened hotel room.
The Rum Diary is based on the semi-autobiographical debut novel of the same name by legendary writer Hunter S. Thompson. It tells of Kemp’s move to Puerto Rico from New York to work at the San Juan Star, a newspaper on the brink of collapse.
Kemp follows the orders of Lotterman (Jenkins) , the Star’s wig-wearing editor, to pen horoscopes and puff pieces, finding a compadre in kooky photographer Sala (Rispoli). He also soaks up the island's lively drinking culture, though perhaps not as much as the resident drunk, the stumbling Moberg (Ribisi).
But Kemp is soon approached by Hal Sanderson (Eckhart), a businessman who wants him to write in favour of shady hotel developments. Sanderson also happens to have a smoking fiancé named Chenault (Heard), of whom Kemp is a little too fond.
Depp shines as the deep-thinking-yet-erratic protagonist, having previously played a Thompson-inspired character in the 1998 classic Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Paul Kemp is a departure from many of Depp’s recent light-hearted roles, such as The Mad Hatter or Captain Jack Sparrow, but it is a complexity to which he is perfectly suited.
In fact, The Rum Diary is largely Depp’s creation. He was both a fan and friend of Thompson, whom he pushed to publish the book in 1998, years after it was written in the 1960s. He convinced Bruce Robinson to write the screenplay for the film and direct it. He was also one of its producers.
Depp is not the only one to put in a solid performance, with Rispoli and Ribisi bringing some upbeat comedy, and Heard portraying a believable femme fatale.
The weakness of The Rum Diary is not its cast but in its plot, which looses pace and direction as the action wears on. Events seem disconnected, and the love triangle with Chenault is severely underdeveloped. Kemp’s later assertions of bringing down the corrupt businessmen also seem a little shallow.
Perhaps it was not the intention of the filmmakers to tell a story, but instead to present a portrait of a young Hunter S. Thompson finding his voice as a writer. Kemp’s first assignment at the Star, to write horoscopes, almost ominously alludes to his ability to write his own destiny.
As a character portrait the film is somewhat effective, with the use of voiceovers permitting the viewer to understand Kemp rather than merely observe him. It is also a decent exploration of journalistic ethics, with the ultimate moral that integrity is more important than money or the trivial ideal of the "American dream".
Those looking for a strong narrative from The Rum Diary may be better off reading Thompson’s novel or revisiting other films that he has inspired. However, despite the dawdling plot, the film does include some engaging performances, beautiful scenery and an interesting snapshot portrait of a seminal writer.
3 out of 5.
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