Review of The Rum Diary
Director Bruce Robinson’s stylish new adaptation of Hunter S. Thompson’s only ‘serious’ novel is more than just a Johnny Depp vanity project. Not content with merely producing it, the irritating pirate lays down his cutlass, returning to the screen as a fledgling version of the drug-addled journo he played in 1998 cult film Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. In The Rum Diary, the bright lights of 1971’s Las Vegas are replaced by the white beaches and bright hotels of 1960s Puerto Rico, while the tipple of the title replaces the “galaxy of uppers, downers, screamers, laughers”… well, for the most part.
Depp plays Paul Kemp – a rum swilling prototype of Thompson alias ‘Raoul Duke’ – with a relaxed passivity seldom seen in his previous roles, exploding occasionally into more familiar bouts of silliness, vulgarity and passion. Kemp arrives at the island’s American newspaper the San Juan Star looking for his own piece of the American dream in this “sea of money”. He soon finds it in the crooked get-rich-quick scheme (and stunning girlfriend) of slick businessman Sanderson (Aaron Eckhart). Hired by Sanderson to write a brochure with which to attract investment to an unspoilt island paradise, Kemp soon finds himself sickened by the destructive greed of corporate America. “They know the price of everything,” he says, quoting Oscar Wilde, “and the value of nothing”.
Although beautifully shot, and lovingly crafted (with more than a little reverence for the source material), the film doesn’t quite succeed in all respects. It’s a little long, and some of the scenes could have been trimmed down or cut altogether, while the focus of the plot seems to wobble almost as violently as the vision of the story’s central characters. Despite its faults the film is enjoyable. Intermittently horrific and hilarious, it is, like all Thompson’s best work, constantly and deeply thought-provoking.
Depp, decent throughout, is overshadowed at many points by his co-stars, particularly by Michael Rispoli’s utterly convincing portrayal of staff photographer Sala, and Giovani Ribisi’s hilariously over the top performance as the substance-abusing, Hitler obsessed, alcoholic journo Moburg. Amber Heard plays Kemp’s love interest Chenault with all the sex, sass and danger required of any beautiful, blonde representative of the American dream, while Richard Jenkins does a good enough job as Lotterman, the cynical, wig wearing editor of the failing newspaper.
Close to the novel in many ways, the film departs from it at a crucial point, perhaps explaining the lack of focus. Whereas the novel is primarily an homage to the style and themes of The Great Gatsby (Thompson proudly admitted to teaching himself to write by retyping Fitzgerald’s Great American Novel), the film is more a tribute to Thompson’s later inimitable style of ‘Gonzo’ journalism – a style with which he repeatedly challenged, and occasionally defeated, “the bastards” of American politics.
Peppered with incisive quotes presumably lifted from Thompson’s later work, the film charts Kemp’s burgeoning awareness of the sinister realities of American expansionism. Confronted by a world of injustice and despondency, Kemp struggles to find an alternative to the paranoid mental ruin of Moburg and the cynical opportunism of Sanderson and Lotterman – and like his conflicted and deeply flawed creator, the Paul Kemp of the film comes out fighting.