As the name suggest, The Rum Diary is an alcohol-fuelled adventure from Director Bruce Robinson, based on the debut autobiographical novel of Hunter S. Thompson. Thompson was an American journalist who pioneered the so-called ‘Gonzo’ style of journalism; immersing himself so fully within his stories, he became one of the central figures throughout.
The central figure in this particular story is Paul Kemp (Johnny Depp), a disenchanted journalist and failed novelist who uproots from the USA to take a position with a local newspaper in Puerto Rico. From his first hungover Puerto Rican sunrise, Kemp is faced with a collision of cultures. Poverty-stricken natives picket his new place of work, whilst his colleagues are a bunch of rag-tag expatriates; Sala (Michael Rispoli) who is waiting for the end of days in order to collect his severance pay, and Moburg (Giovanni Ribisi), a completely unhinged Nazi enthusiast and proprietor of exotic substances.
As Kemp settles in to his work writing the Astrology column and imbibing every drop of rum in the vicinity, he is approached by Sanderson (Aaron Eckhart) a wealthy land baron who, with his colleagues, is raping the land of its real estate to provide the American Dream for the tourists. Sanderson wants Kemp on board, to write a number of persuasive articles that would grease the wheels of their latest project; a hotel complex on an untouched island.
Kemp is reluctantly drawn in to the plot, stumbling through his responsibilities due to a lack of willingness and a constant hangover. He meets Chenault (Amber Heard), the stunning girlfriend of Sanderson and his interests become firmly fixed on her. What follows is a disintegration of Kemp’s life and he struggles to fulfill his responsibilities to all parties whilst retaining his job, his friendships, his drinking habit and his pursuit of Chenault. When Sanderson dumps him from the project, Kemp tries to expose the plot through the newspaper only to find his boss (Richard Jenkins) doesn’t have the spine to do so. Kemp laments the lack of his ‘own voice’ and his inability to persuade.
Eventually the newspaper closes, and Kemp finds a new calling. One final issue addressed to the ‘bastards’ of the world, exposing them and their plans. The final moments of the film become a frantic chase to secure the funds needed for publication, which in the end, fail. Beaten, Kemp decides to return to America to fight the injustice through a combination of “rage and ink” sails in to the sunset.
Many see the 1998 Terry Gilliam movie, Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas as the continuation of The Rum Diary, and in doing so condemn the latter. Whilst Fear & Loathing is a psychedelic and frenetic affair, The Rum Diary is more sombre and dry. However, chronologically that’s because The Rum Diary is the making of the man. Thompson’s alter-ego, Kemp, is the outsider in this story, politically “in the middle” and lacking in ambition and principals he has no direction or calling in life, hence the hibernation in Puerto Rico.
On it’s own however, I think The Rum Diary has other problems. The film births a number of traditional story arcs, the villain, the girl, the fight of the underdog to name a few, however, it completely fails to bring any of them to a resolution. It is a film of cul-de-sacs and you’re left confused and unfulfilled by the time the credits roll. It appears the film is also suffering from a hangover, it has a hard time in managing the sprawling narratives whilst simultaneously moulding the character of Kemp to become the future Hunter S. Thompson. The scenes are a series of disconnected encounters that eventually tail off, having in some small way,
That is not to say the film is not enjoyable though. Whilst there are narratives to cling on to, it is the supporting actors that really buoy the film. Sala provides the dry sense of humour, whilst Ribisi as Moburg steals the scene every time he stumbles on to it, bringing with him the lines ,and the props, that add much of the comic relief to the movie. Depp is the straight man in this film, and the character of Kemp unfortunately doesn’t have enough substance for Depp to make the character his own. Whilst there is nothing wrong with his performance, it is resolutely un-Depp like. It pales in comparison to his previous incarnations, which is perhaps an unfair judgement to make but I can’t help it. Luckily though, Depp, Ribisi & Rispoli play off each other very well, and the chemistry between the three is more than enough to smooth over the cracks.
Depp handpicked Director Bruce Robinson to helm the project based on the strength of his earlier alcohol-soaked production, Withnail & I. Unfortunately the sharp wit and dark comedy of Withnail & I is lacking in the movie, and the consistent scenes of drinking are really the only similarities. I think one of the best ways to view The Rum Diary is perhaps as a holiday. A more sun-soaked version of Withnail & I, where upon ending, nothing has been achieved but it has been enjoyed. If you can curtail your disappointment at the lack of closure then there are plenty of great scenes and characters that you can take from the movie. Even watching the trailer again made me smile at some of the moments I’d witnessed and watching it again on DVD is certainly not ruled out.
The Rum Diary is playing at Cinema City, Norwich until November 24th. For more information and to book your tickets, click here.