It’s rare for a movie to have such great acting, writing, and visuals that it doesn’t need a very good director to make it a solid film, but that’s the case with The Rum Diary. Based on a semiautobiographical novel written by razor-sharp gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson in 1961, the film follows an oft-inebriated writer named Paul Kemp (Johnny Depp) on an odyssey to 1950s Puerto Rico, where he’s been hired by E.J. Lotterman (Richard Jenkins), the editor of a failing English-language newspaper, to write about casinos and bowling alleys for fat American tourists.
Of course, Kemp is a stand-in for Thompson. He mumbles through hyper-articulate observations, stumbles drunkenly into and out of rooms with his awesome ‘50s hair falling in his face, and above all, he’s too smart and too debauched for his own good. He parties like a maniac, soon teaming up in his antics with two of his newspaper cohorts, the straight-talking Bob Sala (Michael Rispoli) and the drug-addled Moburg (Giovanni Ribisi), the latter of whom is a burned-out, bleary-eyed intellectual who makes 470-proof liquor in his kitchen and collects Nazi paraphernalia -- not out of anti-Semitism, but out of nihilistic entertainment value, since he believes that all ethos are bullshit. And of course, golden-era Puerto Rico doesn’t just have booze, it also has impossibly hot, sun-kissed women in Marilyn Monroe dresses, like the vivacious blonde vixen Chenault (Amber Heard), who lives just as fast and loose as Kemp does, but also happens to be the girlfriend of a real-estate magnate (a typically smarmy Aaron Eckhart) who’s interested in recruiting Kemp for some illegal publicity to drum up support for his next hotel venture.
Being tapped by the richest muckety-muck on the island to join the ranks of the haves draws Kemp’s attention to the have-nots living in his tropical paradise -- locals whose grandfathers enjoyed the beaches as community property, until they were bought up by New York real-estate developers and made private. But this doesn’t make Kemp sad; it makes him angry. Aside from a single moment in which he sees poor local kids picking through trash for food, there’s really no tragic subtext to the class struggle portrayed in the film. On the contrary: Far from being a lofty, bleeding-heart liberal, Kemp becomes a mouthpiece for the no-holds-barred, uncensored, vitriolic commentary that Hunter S. Thompson was known for, referring to fat bankers in tailored linen suits as greasy, cheating bastards. And so, tangled up with forbidden women, nefarious businessmen, and clinically insane roommates, Kemp’s island adventure plays out over the course of two hours.
We already knew from Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas that Johnny Depp is the best man on the planet to star in a Thompson adaptation, delivering the late author’s trademark blend of cartoonish madness and incisive commentary in a distinctly offbeat voice. And thankfully, the rest of the cast are able to match his energy and commitment -- especially Ribisi, whose transformation into a nutball character actor is a blessing to us all. Sadly, director Bruce Robinson isn’t able to match the actors or the material. Robinson seems completely unable to create any momentum with his staging, pacing, or editing, and whenever things get suspenseful or exciting, it’s because Depp knows how to play the scene – often despite Robinson undermining any sense of drive or importance in the film with trite choices, weak editing, or bad musical selections. Additionally, the script, which Robinson himself adapted, is overly slack, often unnecessarily devoting precious minutes of screen time to sequences and dialog that slow down the film, while failing to add any connective tissue that would help the plot make sense (especially towards the climax) and give the audience an actual stake in the outcome. But even still, despite lamenting what the movie could have been, you can’t help enjoying what it is: a high-style film with a refreshingly gritty take on the perks of drinking and class warfare.
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- Released: 2011
- Rating: R
- Review: It’s rare for a movie to have such great acting, writing, and visuals that it doesn’t need a very good director to make it a solid film, but that’s the case with The Rum Diary. Based on a semiautobiographical novel written by razor-sharp gonzo journalist H… (more)