The Rum Diary
Johnny Depp, Aaron Eckhart, Michael Rispoli, Amber Heard, Richard Jenkins, Giovanni Ribisi, Amaury Nolasco
(FilmDistrict; US theatrical: 28 Oct 2011 (General release); UK theatrical: 4 Nov 2011 (General release); 2011)
The last time Johnny Depp and the work of the late Dr. Hunter S. Thompson came crashing together, the result was the criminally overlooked adaptation of the latter’s famous Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Handled to Terry Gilliam after Sid and Nancy‘s Alex Cox was unceremoniously ‘let go,’ the relatively faithful translation of the notorious ‘60s screed argued that source and star had found a perfect performance match. Now, after years wallowing in Development Hell , Depp has managed to get Thompson’s neophyte novel, The Rum Diary, into theaters everywhere. A true labor of love, it also represents a comeback of sorts for Withnail and I icon Bruce Robinson. Indeed, the man behind the beloved cult comedy hasn’t directed a film in nearly 20 years. Fortunately, the results reveal that time has been nothing but good for this project…and the one’s producing it.
It’s the tail end of the ‘50s and failing novelist Paul Kemp (Depp) comes to Puerto Rico looking for work. He winds up at The San Juan Star, a paper plagued by labor and population disputes and run by an editor (Richard Jenkins) who wants to maintain the sunny status quo, not push for any investigative invention. As Kepp gets to know the other writers, including new best friend Bob Salas (Michael Rispoli) and resident crackpot Moberg (Giovanni Ribisi), he falls under the insular island tutelage of flashy fat cat Sanderson (Aaron Eckhart). Soon, the rich property owner wants Kemp to collaborate on a major land development deal, though the actual details are suspect at best. At least our hero has Sanderson’s sexy gal pal Chenault (Amber Heard) to keep him occupied. Instantly smitten, Kemp will find that nothing in the troubled Caribbean atoll is what it seems to be.
If you want to hear and see the kind of writing that makes actors sing, if you want to recognize what’s missing from most movies today, then just sit back and let The Rum Diary‘s dialogue dance across your tired, suspect brain. It’s a beautiful experience, like listening to a carefully crafted symphony of cynical comic commentary. Robinson, who has lived off his Withnail credence for some time now, announces to newcomers why he is indeed so praised. The conversations here crackle with as much light and energy as the sun drenched tropical backdrop and the high proof cocktails. It’s an amazing directing job, a near flawless combination of character, casting, and craft. Indeed, aside from one minor detail (Ms. Heard looks like a high schooler here), Robinson can be praised for his ability to take a fascinating amount of dispirit ideas and forging them into a fine, fierce comedy.
Yet The Rum Diary is not completely perfect. It misses beats here and there, the direct result of Thompson’s inexperience as a scribe. As only his second book - and left incomplete until many decades later - the main narrative is a tad confused. Kemp comes to Puerto Rico to right wrongs, yet never takes on the ones right in front of his office doors. Instead, he gets wrapped up in a shady property deal with people who would piss on him rather than have his input. In fact, the whole hotel business seems labored and added on, like an unnecessary accessory to an already fine design. We’d never have to know what makes Sanderson so sleazy - just his mere presence and the way he lives argues for how he exploits things. The deal is a dead end, just like the oddball eccentricity of Moberg or the reasons for Chenault’s groupie girl conceits.
Another flaw comes from familiarity. Since its release, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas has become an unexpected underground hit, a masterwork among those looking outside the mainstream Hollywood box. It’s also been a benchmark to the current meteoric rise of Depp and his international commercial popularity, arguing for his integrity as an actor and his bankability as a star. Channeling Thompson flawlessly, the voice and attitude remains staples of the movie’s magic. Here, Depp dips into them now and again, believing that by doing so, he shows how a novice like Kemp could become as jaded and jaundiced as his creator. Every once in a while, our hero will hunker down and start forcing his fiery opinions through thoroughly clenched teeth, and we’re back in Gilliam’s goofy nightmare all over again.
Otherwise, The Rum Diary is an overheated, heartfelt tribute. It’s celluloid strained through a homemade still and fermented until near toxicity. It banks on your willingness to watch great actors deliver delicious lines in a location that just screams hedonism, all while watching the faults along the fringe wither and decay. The ugly American element is in full flower, proving that our country’s path among foreign ‘friends’ was never pleasant or easy and the romance rides a tiny wave of sexual allure. The sudden decision to celebrate integrity may seem to come too quickly and the resolution of same too
pat, but the trip from introduction to indictment is frequently fabulous.
Those hoping for a manic, over-the-top mindf*ck ala Fear should, instead, sip a cool fruit based drink and chill. While there is plenty to be afraid of and hate about this version of the Caribbean circa 1960, the general vibe in one of relaxed repulsion. Indeed, the steaming pile in paradise theme resonates throughout Robinson’s approach, the dreadful underneath always a side street or sporting event (read: cockfighting) away. By positioning his interpretation this way, but using performers who understand how to be both charming and alarming, the filmmaker finds subtexts that even Thompson would find fascinating. For audiences expecting a rollicking, rib tickling time, The Rum Diary will probably disappoint. For others, however, the melody of the words and the ability of those offering them makes up for a couple of minor miscues. This particular potion of Rum is indeed intoxicating. You just have to get past a few impurities to truly enjoy it.