Review :: Big Screen – The Rum Diary
March 17th 2012
Nick La Rosa
‘The Rum Diary’ is a sort of weird spiritual prequel to ‘Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas’, with a much older Johnny Depp playing Paul Kemp, a much younger alter ego of Hunter S Thompson. This is based on one of Thompson’s earlier novels, written while he was still trying to find his voice. It went unpublished for decades, until Depp helped get it out there. He also helped get the movie made, producing it under his own production company. He even managed to bring in Bruce Robinson, the man behind the amazing ‘Withnail & I’ who had long since faded into obscurity, to write and direct the adaption. Depp and Thompson were close, and when Thompson shot himself a few year back, Depp used some of his Pirates of the Caribbean money to shoot his friend’s ashes out of a cannon, as per Thompson’s express wishes. I would like that story better if I had not seen the ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ sequels. I digress, but my point is the book is great, the story behind the movie is great, I am very happy that it exists and I really wanted to like it… but I didn’t.
Kemp is a frustrated novelist who takes a job in a failing newspaper in Puerto Rico. Here he drinks copious amounts of rum with Michael Rispoli’s Sala, and home made rocket fuel with Giovanni Ribisi’s Moberg, while pissing off his straight laced editor played by the great Richard Jenkins. The closest the film comes to a plot is with the introduction of Aaron Eckhart’s slimy property developer Sanderson, who for some reason goes to the ends of the earth to recruit Kemp to write some literature for a dodgy new development, as though he is the only person in all of Puerto Rico who could write a travel blurb. Unfortunately it has the side effect of bringing him too close to Sanderson’s girlfriend whom he is instantly attracted to. She is played wonderfully by Amber Heard.
I say the closest thing to a plot because the movie isn’t really concerned with story, it’s about Kemp finding his voice, and choosing sides between the bastards like Sanderson, and his readers. The trouble is that Kemp is a frustrating protagonist, drifting through the first three quarters of the film following other characters around and making the movie feel directionless. You could say this of Fear and Loathing I guess, but ‘The Rum Diary’ doesn’t have that films spark. Not that a film needs story. I have read other reviewers who were just happy to spend time in the world Robinson creates and with the cast of characters. Not me though. The film runs way too long, and I found myself getting restless, watching the clock. Depp is fine, which sadly is a relief these days, though don’t expect Fear and Loathing levels of weirdness. Kemp is much more dialled down than Raul Duke obviously. Special mention must go to Amber Heard who is terrific. There are some very funny passages, but overall I found it a frustrating film, and one I can’t really recommend.