Mark Reviews Movies

The Rum Diary


1 ½ Stars (out of 4)

Director: Bruce Robinson

Cast: Johnny Depp, Aaron Eckhart, Michael Rispoli, Amber Heard, Richard Jenkins, Giovanni Ribisi

MPAA Rating: R (for language, brief drug use and sexuality)

Running Time: 2:00

Release Date: 10/28/11

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Review by Mark Dujsik | October 27, 2011

"This is the end of one story," the coda self-importantly says, "and the beginning of another." The Rum Diary, then, plays as an origin story of journalist Hunter S. Thompson, who—as has been detailed countless times before—famously or infamously imagined himself as the most important part of whatever story he might be telling. We have him to thank (genuinely or sarcastically), I suppose, for the writing style of so many bloggers.

The movie, based on Thompson's book of the same name (supposedly written in the early 1960s but not published until 1998), once again finds the writer using an alternate persona as the central figure, further blurring the lines between fiction and reality. Writer/director Bruce Robinson sees it entirely as reality, although perhaps a better word for how The Rum Diary approaches its subject is "dogma"—the gospel of Gonzo, if you will.

Here, the Thompson figure is named Paul Kemp. His character arc is a simple one: from an alcoholic idealist with big plans to write about the truth to an alcoholic and drug-enthusiast cynic with sweeping plans to write the Truth. Johnny Depp (who appeared as another, completely different one-note variation of Thompson in Terry Gilliam's manically repetitive adaptation of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas) plays Kemp in monotone with flashes of goofy looks; the movie itself performs on a similar level. It ambles to and fro as characters impart glints of a social and political manifesto, equally in crude terms: There is corruption in the system stemming from those "bastards" in power. The point, yet again for Thompson, is the death of the American Dream (Exactly how many times did it die in his view anyway?). That Dream, in his mind at least, is one of rebellion with or without a purpose, and the movie, failing to capture any sort of rebellious spirit, resolves itself on the aimless part.

It is 1960, and Kemp is in San Juan, Puerto Rico, to take on the thankless job of writing for the declining newspaper the San Juan Star. The editor-in-chief Lotterman (Richard Jenkins) assigns him to the horoscope, after the previous writer died from an extensive, group sexual assault, and other freelance gigs, like interviewing tourists at the neighborhood bowling alleys ("The Great Whites," he dubs them—"beasts of obesity"). Lotterman has Kemp's number up-front, noting the sunglasses he wears to his first day on the job and doubting that his new hire will cut down on his alcohol intake any time soon. After all, he has the hotel bills to prove it.

Kemp has other plans for his job at the paper, especially when he wanders the streets of the city and stumbles upon the abject poverty of the locals. His story about how the government pays more for parking meters than the poor is met with Lotterman's disapproval. Readers—generally tourists—don't want the cynical view of what they see as an island paradise, as long as they stay in the hotel.

Hotels become a major point to the story when Kemp meets Sanderson (Aaron Eckhart), an American businessman who sees the scarce land available on the commonwealth to developers as the opportunity to get rich and quickly. "Every major corporation keeps its money offshore," he relates to Kemp; the good news for Sanderson is that they are offshore.

The businessman needs a writer to sell the idea of a new hotel on an unspoiled island to the people—some well-timed articles here, a brochure there—and Kemp is Sanderson's man. The only problem, apart from his suspicion that his activities might be illegal ("An inappropriate question" to ask, says one of Sanderson's business associates), is that Kemp lusts after his new boss' girlfriend Chenault (Amber Heard).

Robinson's screenplay unfolds in incidents—episodes of misadventures and weird characters. High on the list of the latter is Moburg (Giovanni Ribisi), the newspaper's religion and culture reporter who distills his own brand of 470-proof rum in the dump of an apartment where he, Kemp, and staff photographer Bob Sala (Michael Rispoli) live. The rest, who don't keep a copy of Hitler's speeches in their record collection, seem sane by comparison. Sala becomes Kemp's right-hand man, accompanying him on assorted alcohol-fueled trips across the island.

They're stagnant bits of alleged wackiness, like a late-night stop at a restaurant where the proprietor and others want to exact revenge on any white man they happen to stumble across that night and an attempt to drive a car in which the front seat has been removed, leading Kemp to sit on Sala's lap to reach the pedals. Kemp's first experience with LSD turns into yet more pointless strolling after a hallucinatory vision of Sala's tongue growing five times its normal size.

The vital part of Kemp's (and, by extension, Thompson's) development in The Rum Diary is the discovery of his voice, a concept with which Robinson seems disinterested. Apart from a singular mention that Kemp feels he has none and then a moment in which he writes a summation of the lessons learned through his experiences in Puerto Rico, the movie absorbs itself in situations instead.

Copyright © 2011 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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