“The Rum Diary” Film Review
Having been finished for two years, “The Rum Diary” has finally been released. Based on the first novel of Hunter S. Thompson, the iconic Gonzo journalist that carved his name in history as a pillar of dirty truths, “Rum Diary” is a loose portrayal of Thompson’s foray into newspaper journalism in Puerto Rico. The story follows the author trying desperately to reconcile serious reporting with his darker impulses, all while trying to build confidence in his voice as a writer. The film is more so an interpretation of the 1959 novel than a direct adaptation. With many of the funniest scenes oddly missing (don’t hold your breath for the opening airplane scene), only three lines taken from the story, the melding of characters, and a weak plot, the film is a very strange thing but not in the way you may hope.
Written and directed by Bruce Robinson, the writer and director of the iconic “Withnail and I,” “Rum Diary” has its flaws but they certainly don’t outweigh the film’s strengths. Johnny Depp’s portrayal of a young Thompson finding his voice and reinventing himself as the man who will change the face of American journalism, makes “The Rum Diary” worth every minute.
Paul Kemp (Johnny Depp) is the Thompson of this story, an American expatriate who has gotten a job in Puerto Rico at the San Juan Star, a newspaper that caters to American tourists living in their bubble of hotel casinos. His new editor, Lotterman (Richard Jenkins), is sober with a bad wig and has little time for drunken shenanigans in his staff. However, aside from some yelling, the desperate editor doesn’t interfere with Kemp’s alcoholic habits and lets the writer roam free. The smoky newsroom also features Sala (a beyond excellent Michael Rispoli), the grizzled photographer for the paper in which Kemp finds himself a roommate and partner-in-crime. There’s also Moburg (the scene-stealing Giovanni Ribisi), the Nazi paraphernalia collecting religion expert of the paper, and a man whose identity is one created from the depths of his home-made alcohol that could fuel a tank.
Things are only calm for so long before Kemp meets Sanderson, the PR shark (Aaron Eckhart) that bedazzles turtles and sees mother-nature in terms of dollar signs. Sanderson is the epitome of American greed, a man who plans on building so many hotels that you can’t “see the sea.” Kemp allows himself to get pulled into Sanderson’s greedy, exploitive real estate deal due to his unbearable attraction to Sanderson’s young, bored girlfriend, Chenault (a 50s magazine cover come to life by Amber Heard). Despite the seduction of capitalism, Kemp eventually writes something true, on behalf of the island’s silenced working class, and finds himself dealing with the consequences of that truth.
The film is almost too timid at times, never taking full advantage of the story available, and has a lackluster ending, complete with ill-placed character updates. With so much material from the novel available to it, the film never takes complete advantage. Some choices (the melding of two characters within Kemp, for example) make sense but others translate poorly in execution. Thompson filled his novel with amazingly rich observations and without his words, the film adaptation feels emptier. However, the film is beautiful to look at thanks to director of photography Dariusz Wolski (“Pirates of the Caribbean” and “Alice in Wonderland”). Wolski allows Puerto Rico to be a star character with its gorgeous beaches, achingly broken cities, and the seductive lies of shiny new hotels. He expertly shows you the beauty of the land, even from within the poverty.
Where the film truly soars, though, is Depp’s understanding of Thompson’s soul and his ability to pull the humanity from the often misunderstood representation of Thompson. He turns away from the manic side that he portrayed so well as Raoul Duke in “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,” and focuses instead on the introspective and insecure side to Thompson. Depp shows a young man who is almost torturing himself with the successes of fellow writers, constantly comparing himself to the likes of Cooleridge and Oscar Wilde. Depp imbues within Kemp a man who doesn’t yet know how to write like himself, how to use his own biting voice to attack the “bastards” who are luring people into the falsity of the American Dream.
Johnny Depp looks to be having the time of his life, playing his life-long friend and idol once again on screen. His reverence and respect for Thompson shines, not just in the film itself but in the long process in making and releasing the film. Prior to filming “Fear and Loathing,” Depp lived in Thompson’s basement so he could better adopt the eccentric journalist’s mannerisms. While there, Depp discovered the forgotten novel, which was finally published in 1998 (the same year in which “Fear and Loathing” was released), and vowed to put it onscreen. The original plan was to produce the film together but when Thompson killed himself in 2005, Depp was the sole driving force of the production. While the film was finished two years ago, the release date was deliberately pushed back. The reason was mainly due to Johnny Depp’s insistence that the film be distanced from the “Pirates of the Caribbean” franchise so that it could have its own moment in the box office. Had they been released together, the flashier, emptier, Jack Sparrow would have eclipsed the self-doubting Paul Kemp, a choice which would have been a disservice to Thompson’s memory and a lifelong regret of Depp’s.
“The Rum Diary” is more for Hunter S. Thompson than anyone else and Thompson would be the first to appreciate the film’s departure from his insane alter-ego; the alter-ego that he couldn’t escape from, and almost lost himself in, later in life. Audiences will certainly want more weirdness in “Rum Diary” and may not like the film, but Johnny Depp and Hunter S. Thompson certainly don’t care. It’s not about the weirdness. It’s about the beginnings to the weirdness, the calm before the incredibly strange and iconic storm.