The Rum Diary
Directed by Bruce Robinson
Screenplay by Bruce Robinson
Johnny Depp as Kemp
Aaron Eckhart as Sanderson
Michael Rispoli as Sala
Amber Heard as Chenault
Richard Jenkins as Lotterman
Giovanni Ribisi as Moburg
How long is The Rum Diary? 120 minutes.
What is The Rum Diary rated? R for language, brief drug use and sexuality.
Why Is The Rum Gone? Now We Know.
Certain films leave you with the feeling of a long weekend spent smoking and drinking, simply by watching the characters do so much of it. The Hustler with Paul Newman is a prime example of this phenomenon, but it did not have the natural beauty of Puerto Rico to comfort the eyes. Bruce Robinson’s The Rum Diary is the newest movie which allows you to tie one on without touching a drop, but at least you can imagine swimming in the sea afterward.
The Rum Diary stars Johnny Depp as Paul Kemp, a struggling novelist at the end of his rope, who sees journalism in Puerto Rico as a chance to lie low, regroup, and hopefully make a few dollars. The island seems like a broken-down but perfectly serviceable paradise, where he can indulge his penchant for excessive drinking and not be judged too harshly by his fellow man. Soon, the social unrest in San Juan begins to capture his interest.
He soon discovers that the staff of the ailing San Juan Star have little use for his populist sympathies, or his vivid opinions on the local tourist trade. In Paul Kemp’s Puerto Rico, 1960, the American dream is a sickly veneer painted over the impoverished face of the island to attract the wealthy and corrupt. Unfortunately, he has been hired to sell that dream against his own principles, and is admonished numerous times by his editor (Richard Jenkins) to can the journalism and stick to puff pieces about bowling alleys and the visiting mayor of Miami.
A jaded staff photographer named Bob Sala (Michael Rispoli) swoops Kemp up as a sidekick, or vice versa, and together they drown their anxieties in rum and other more perilous spirits. Driven as he is to find a legitimate and profitable voice in print, Kemp is not blind to the comforts of self-indulgence, if only as a temporary safeguard against lethal levels of cynicism. Their shared love of the demon rum invariably lands them in mischief, from cockfights to car chases, which draws them ever deeper into the dead-end existence which they would someday like to escape.
Kemp soon learns that the best way to survive in San Juan is to find a suitable hideout and get a profitable sideline going. The unholy grail of this lifestyle is to become like local magnate Hal Sanderson (Aaron Eckhart), a former journalist gone rogue and now living the high life as a villainous hotel developer. Though Paul objects to his amoral exploitation of just about everything, his wealth and power have a captivating allure for even the most noble of deadbeats.
Add to that the presence of Sanderson’s girlfriend, Chenault (Amber Heard). Witty, impulsive, and by all superficial standards perfect, she becomes the love of Kemp’s life at first sight. Given how stunning Amber Heard looks in this film, he may be cheerfully forgiven for losing his heart so easily. She is one of the most beautiful young women in Hollywood today. She rounds out her doe-eyed vulnerability in The Ward and her ass-kicking escapades in Drive Angry as a reckless romantic dancing a little too close to the fire.
The supporting cast of The Rum Diary is outstanding, but one performance deserves special mention. Giovanni Ribisi, in perhaps his scummiest role to date, plays a newspaper correspondent named Moberg, who shambles around dispensing proverbs from the depths of his rum-shredded mind. He styles himself as a sage and looks like a garden-variety pervert. Though chiefly obsessed with voodoo, vintage Nazi propaganda, and crippling ethanol benders, he nonetheless plays a rather endearing fool to Kemp’s tragic hero.
The Rum Diary is only Bruce Robinson’s fourth effort as a director since 1987, and his first since Jennifer 8 in 1992. In the intervening time he has done his fair share of screenwriting. His feature film debut, Withnail & I is a semi-autobiographical cult comedy in which two out of work actors take a disastrous holiday in the English countryside. It is also one of the finest and most underrated films of the 1980s. It seems logical that the premise of prolonged drunken misadventures would attract him to Hunter S. Thompson’s novel, begun when the notorious writer was a young man but published fairly near the end of his life.
Those who recall the brain-rattling antics of Johnny Depp and Benicio del Toro in Terry Gilliam’s much debated adaptation of Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas may be surprised by this movie. There are certainly recognizable moments of Gonzo madness, but this tale originates from a more youthful, coherent, and conventional perspective.
At its core this film is a tender eulogy for Hunter S. Thompson, and playing a less unhinged aspect of the late author’s imagination was probably a poignant experience for his longtime pal Johnny Depp. In the decade or so of development limbo which delayed the production of The Rum Diary, there was little doubt that Depp remained the choice to play the Thompson-styled protagonist.
Johnny Depp is at his best when he does more acting than capering. Sure, who doesn’t love Captain Jack Sparrow, but who also doesn’t need a break from him after two hours? Ever since Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas, Depp has had trouble keeping that Raoul Duke twitch down. Roles like Captain Jack, Ichabod Crane, and even Rango have given him more chances to indulge in his beloved wacko slapstick, but he is perfectly capable of reining it in for straight performances, as in Public Enemies. The Rum Diary affords him a compromise. Alternating between morose lucidity and comical intoxication, he gets to play a well-rounded range of moods, and still channel the spirit of Thompson in that uncanny way he does. We get several Thompsonian monologues mixed in with the craziness, in a film that has no qualms about taking its time. The contemplative pace and tremulous handheld photography give a sense of constant hangover. The script does not over-indulge in apocalyptic pronouncements and Nixon-centric vitriol — just enough to inspire a little warming nostalgia in a generation of Gonzo journalism fans.
Those who have held on, hoping against hope that they would hear Thompson’s voice strongly and clearly one more time, will find much to delight them in The Rum Diary. And as for Bruce Robinson’s long hiatus from the director’s chair, that seems to have been worth the wait as well.