PopMatters is moving to WordPress. We will publish a few essays daily while we develop the new site. We hope the beta will be up sometime late next week.

This Sampling of 'Rum' is Intoxicating

The Rum Diary is an overheated, heartfelt tribute. It's celluloid strained through a homemade still and fermented until near toxicity

The Rum Diary

Director: Bruce Robinson
Cast: Johnny Depp, Aaron Eckhart, Michael Rispoli, Amber Heard, Richard Jenkins, Giovanni Ribisi, Amaury Nolasco
Rated: R
Studio: FilmDistrict
Year: 2011
US date: 2011-10-28 (General release)
UK date: 2011-11-04 (General release)

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.


Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology and hosting provider that we have less than a month, until November 6, to move PopMatters off their service or we will be shut down. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to save the site.





Laura Veirs Talks to Herself on 'My Echo'

The thematic connections between these 10 Laura Veirs songs and our current situation are somewhat coincidental, or maybe just the result of kismet or karmic or something in the zeitgeist.


15 Classic Horror Films That Just Won't Die

Those lucky enough to be warped by these 15 classic horror films, now available on Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection and Kino Lorber, never got over them.


Sixteen Years Later Wayne Payne Follows Up His Debut

Waylon Payne details a journey from addiction to redemption on Blue Eyes, The Harlot, The Queer, The Pusher & Me, his first album since his 2004 debut.


Every Song on the Phoenix Foundation's 'Friend Ship' Is a Stand-Out

Friend Ship is the Phoenix Foundation's most personal work and also their most engaging since their 2010 classic, Buffalo.


Kevin Morby Gets Back to Basics on 'Sundowner'

On Sundowner, Kevin Morby sings of valleys, broken stars, pale nights, and the midwestern American sun. Most of the time, he's alone with his guitar and a haunting mellotron.


Lydia Loveless Creates Her Most Personal Album with 'Daughter'

Given the turmoil of the era, you might expect Lydia Loveless to lean into the anger, amplifying the electric guitar side of her cowpunk. Instead, she created a personal record with a full range of moods, still full of her typical wit.


Flowers for Hermes: An Interview with Performing Activist André De Shields

From creating the title role in The Wiz to winning an Emmy for Ain't Misbehavin', André De Shields reflects on his roles in more than four decades of iconic musicals, including the GRAMMY and Tony Award-winning Hadestown.


The 13 Greatest Horror Directors of All Time

In honor of Halloween, here are 13 fascinating fright mavens who've made scary movies that much more meaningful.


British Jazz and Soul Artists Interpret the Classics on '​Blue Note Re:imagined'

Blue Note Re:imagined provides an entrance for new audiences to hear what's going on in British jazz today as well as to go back to the past and enjoy old glories.


Bill Murray and Rashida Jones Add Another Shot to 'On the Rocks'

Sofia Coppola's domestic malaise comedy On the Rocks doesn't drown in its sorrows -- it simply pours another round, to which we raise our glass.


​Patrick Cowley Remade Funk and Disco on 'Some Funkettes'

Patrick Cowley's Some Funkettes sports instrumental renditions from between 1975-1977 of songs previously made popular by Donna Summer, Herbie Hancock, the Temptations, and others.


The Top 10 Definitive Breakup Albums

When you feel bombarded with overpriced consumerism disguised as love, here are ten albums that look at love's hangover.


Dustin Laurenzi's Natural Language Digs Deep Into the Jazz Quartet Format with 'A Time and a Place'

Restless tenor saxophonist Dustin Laurenzi runs his four-piece combo through some thrilling jazz excursions on a fascinating new album, A Time and a Place.


How 'Watchmen' and 'The Boys' Deconstruct American Fascism

Superhero media has a history of critiquing the dark side of power, hero worship, and vigilantism, but none have done so as radically as Watchmen and The Boys.


Floodlights' 'From a View' Is Classicist Antipodal Indie Guitar Pop

Aussie indie rockers, Floodlights' debut From a View is a very cleanly, crisply-produced and mixed collection of shambolic, do-it-yourself indie guitar music.


CF Watkins Embraces a Cool, Sophisticated Twang on 'Babygirl'

CF Watkins has pulled off the unique trick of creating an album that is imbued with the warmth of the American South as well as the urban sophistication of New York.


Helena Deland Suggests Imagination Is More Rewarding Than Reality on 'Something New'

Canadian singer-songwriter Helena Deland's first full-length release Someone New reveals her considerable creative talents.


While the Sun Shines: An Interview with Composer Joe Wong

Joe Wong, the composer behind Netflix's Russian Doll and Master of None, articulates personal grief and grappling with artistic fulfillment into a sweeping debut album.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.