The Rum Diary
Release Date: October 28, 2011
Director: Bruce Robinson
Writers: Bruce Robinson (screenplay), Hunter S. Thompson (novel)
Stars: Johnny Depp, Michael Rispoli, Giovanni Ribisi and Aaron Eckhart
MPAA Rating: R
The Rum Diary works best if you treat it like an island vacation. If you can simply sit back (preferably with your own glass of rum) and simply let the film wash over you, you’ll be treated to a collection of fun scenes, wonderful performances and really beautiful location shots. Without that laid back vacation outlook though, you may find yourself troubled by the film’s slow moving, seemingly rudderless plot, which veers off in several radically different directions without ever really settling on where it should go.
The story, based on a book by Hunter S. Thompson, center around Paul Kemp (Johnny Depp), a failed novelist who moves to Puerto Rico to work for the San Juan Star. The paper is dying a slow death and Kemp is hired on the spot by the editor Lotterman (Richard Jenkins) because he’s the only person who applied for the job. He quickly befriends his coworkers Sala (Michael Rispoli), the staff photographer, and Moburg (Giovanni Ribisi), a drunken mess who only shows up at the office to collect his paycheck.
At first, Kemp wants to write real stories about the plight of the Puerto Rican people, but he’s quickly shot down by Lotterman, who tells him the American tourists and military familes who buy the paper only want to hear happy stories about bowling alley outings and people hitting it big at the casinos. It doesn’t take long for Kemp to give up on his goal and get in bed with Sanderson (Aaron Eckhart), a local developer who wants Kemp to give him favorable press to help sell the locals on a massive land development project. While collecting free money from Sanderson and borrowing one of his sports cars, Kemp also manages to fall for Sanderson’s girlfriend Chenault (Amber Heard).
The film divides its time between Sanderson and Kemp’s dealings, Kemp’s interactions with Lotterman at the paper and Kemp, Sala and Moburg exploring Puerto Rico. The land development plot never really goes anywhere. It offers a few compelling set ups to advance the story, but never really turns into anything worthwhile. Similarly, Kemp’s job at the San Juan Star gives Depp and Jenkins a few great scenes together, but the film gets too caught up in the other storylines to flesh it out. The best moments in the film are the ones with Kemp, Sala and Moburg getting into various shenanigans.
It’s when that trio gets together that the audience is treated to the film’s most memorable scenes. Kemp and Sala have a couple of fantastic car chase sequences, one involving Kemp breathing fire out of his mouth using grain alcohol and a lighter and another involving Kemp having to sit on Sala’s lap as they drive down the highway. They also freak out on LSD together (giving us a scene involving Sala’s tongue that will haunt your dreams) and enter Sala’s roosters into several cockfighting competitions.
Johnny Depp is, unsurprisingly, fantastic in the film. You can tell he loves playing the character and that this project was a labor of love for him. He and Michael Rispoli have really great chemistry together as well. I really enjoyed their on-screen friendship. (Depp also has great chemistry with Amber Heard, as I imagine he does with just about every woman on the planet.) I was less sold on Giovanni Ribisi’s odd portrayal of Moburg, which at times works very well, but other times can be quite grating and over the top.
The rest of the cast is great. Heard just exudes sex and it’s easy to see how Kemp would instantly fall in love with Chenault. Aaron Eckhart nails the role of Sanderson, though it’s a type of role he has tons of experience playing already. Richard Jenkins, who is a fantastic character actor, injects a lot of personality into Lotterman, who is essentially just a hard ass with a bad hairpiece.
The island of Puerto Rico itself becomes another character in the film. The film does a great job capturing the island in a beautiful and compelling way. It’s beaches and lovely countrysides become lavish backdrops for the film. Plus, the uneasy interactions with the natives help fuel the various plotlines. And the festival of St. Thomas also provides an unique setting for one of the film’s most important scenes.
The Rum Diary is far from a perfect film, but it’s one made with love by a group of wonderful actors. While the film never quite comes together as a whole, there are enough individual moments and beautiful scenery to keep you entertained. So if you are simply looking to escape the real world for a few hours, I recommend giving this film a shot.
Written by Joel Murphy. If you enjoy his reviews, he also writes a weekly pop culture column called Murphy’s Law, which you can find here. You can contact Joel at firstname.lastname@example.org.