The Rum Diary (2011)
“Absolutely Nothing in Moderation”
The Rum Diary (2011)
Director: Bruce Robinson
Cast: Johnny Depp, Giovanni Ribisi, Aaron Eckhart
Synopsis: American journalist Paul Kemp takes on a freelance job in Puerto Rico for a local newspaper during the 1960s and struggles to find a balance between island culture and the expatriates who live there.
Midway through Bruce Robinson’s loosely-plotted adaptation of Hunter S. Thompson’s long unpublished semi-autobiographical novel The Rum Diary, Thompson’s alter-ego Paul Kemp (Johhny Depp – 21 Jump Street, The Lone Ranger) bemoans to Chenault (Amber Heard – Zombieland, Machete Kills), the gorgeous girlfriend of sleazy PR rep Sanderson (Aaron Eckhart – Nurse Betty, The Dark Knight), that after a decade of writing he still doesn’t have a writing voice. It’s a key moment that goes some way to explaining the rambling, episodic structure of the film, which resulted in it receiving lukewarm reviews from the majority of critics. This isn’t so much a story about a disillusioned journalist’s rejection of a style of life (sadly recognisable today) which places more importance on materialism than truth, but about the jumbled, disconnected events that conspired to mould a man, and thus enable him to find that elusive voice.
Kemp arrives in 1960 Puerto Rico a pickled souse of a man – although even in his late 40s, Depp looks too well-preserved to convincingly portray a dedicated soak. He has won a job with the San Juan Star under the editorship of bewigged Lotterman (Richard Jenkins – The Cabin in the Woods, Jack Reacher), a typically hard-bitten and cynical newsman who is more interested in delivering his readership a sanitised version of life in Puerto Rico than the truth. This ideology manifests itself in the shambolic nature of the newspaper’s staff, primarily staff photographer Sala (Michael Rispoli – Kick Ass, Pain & Gain) and Moberg (Giovanni Ribisi – Saving Private Ryan, Ted), who rarely surfaces long enough from a narcotic-induced haze to provide any copy (a character, perhaps, which ironically foreshadows Thompson’s own tenure at Rolling Stone in his later years). While he fights – but not too hard – his own alcoholic habit, Kemp is approached by Sanderson to write positive reports on the plans of a business cartel to turn a paradise island into a holiday resort filled with high-rise hotels.
Kemp’s story is told with only passing regard to any kind of narrative thrust, so that few of the events depicted are directly related, or combine to provide a cumulative influence on Kemp’s eventual literary maturation. Many of the episodes are extremely funny. Some, such as his and Sala’s flight from a bunch of angry locals, some of whom were earlier ejected from Sanderson’s private beach, do serve to coalesce Kemp’s opinion on the exploitation of the people’s land, while others, such as his and Sala’s reaction to mind-bending eye drops (‘I have fear!’ an hysterical Sala bellows in response to Kemp’s hallucinatory belief that his friend’s tongue has grown to gargantuan proportions) seem to be there purely for comical effect. A little more focus might have provided us with a more concise insight into what made the man, but it would not then have identified so closely with Thompson’s own personality.
Perhaps the film’s only real flaw is in the characters of Sanderson and Chenault. He’s too much of a stereotypical big-business villain, fashioned more by post-1960s films like Wall Street than the era in which he operates. His character seems at odds with a film that otherwise seems to go to great lengths to anchor itself in a specific era – to the point that even the style of cinematography mimics that of the mid-20th century, it’s camera remaining fairly static in comparison to the predominant techniques in practice today. Chenault also seems to have no place in the story other than to provide Kemp with some love interest – and the males in the audience with some eye candy amongst a predominantly male cast. The recreation of the period is fine and the sun-baked Puerto Rican scenery is idyllic.
The Rum Diary is a film that will appeal only to a relative few. There are no real heroes to speak of, no Important Life Lessons to be learned, no neat tidying up of loose ends (even though the ‘hero’ sails off into the sunset). But if you like a film to provide an insight into what makes a man into the man that he is, you just might get something out of this one.
(Reviewed 16th March 2012)