Dir. by Bruce Robinson - 2 hours
by Clayton Hollifield
"The Rum Diary" has a few background details that are pretty interesting. This film is based on a book of the same name by Hunter S. Thompson, which was written in the early 1960's, but remained unpublished until 1998. It's the only published fiction book by Thompson (there is supposed to be a second, as yet unpublished fiction novel written). The story is largely based on Thompson's own experiences in Puerto Rico, so having Johnny Depp playing the main character (Paul Kemp) is a sort of call-back to his portrayal of Thompson in "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas." And this is also director Bruce Robinson's first film in something like twenty years. That's a lot of background!
Kemp (Depp) is a near alcoholic writer who has managed to wrangle a job as a reporter in Puerto Rico with an English-language newspaper. It's not particularly prestigious, and the editor, Lotterman (Richard Jenkins), largely views the newspaper as light reading to entice Americans to come down to spend some tourist dollars on bowling and gambling. All of this is in the early-1960's, and in contrast to the near-constant violent protests in the streets, there are also wealthy American moguls angling at the best way to extract insane profits from the islands. Kemp gets wrangled into one of the schemes organized by Hal Sanderson (Aaron Eckhart), partially by virtue of his position as a writer for the San Juan Star, but also easily lured in through his barely concealed interest in Sanderson's wife, Chenault (Amber Heard). Like most of the other newspaper employees, Kemp is nearly always drunk, and is urged on in this pursuit by his flat-mate, Will Sala (Michael Rispoli), and it nearly always ends badly.
So, there are two main questions to be answered about this movie. The first: how is it as a movie? Not bad, not bad at all. There's a lot of charm to the setting (the island is beautiful, as are the period cars and ramshackle structures), and the story works. Kemp shows up in Puerto Rico hoping to jump-start his attempt at writing novels, but laments his inability to find his "voice" as a writer, even after ten years of writing. This is the main theme to the movie; Kemp starts off as someone who doesn't seem to have a strong opinion about much of anything aside from the need for another drink. But as his drunken antics end up getting him caught up in situations beyond his control, he also finds himself genuinely seeing and reacting to the situation around him (namely, the nearly obscene poverty that many Puerto Ricans find themselves in, and the contempt that Americans like Sanderson treat the locals with).
When Kemp tries to use what skills he has (namely, writing) to attempt to address the situation, his article is quashed by Lotterman, and he's basically lectured that no one wants to hear bad news, and that his job is to make people think that they're living in an island paradise. Any deviation from that will result in the financiers of the newspaper pulling the plug, and everyone will find themselves out of work. With that avenue closed, Kemp is drawn further into Sanderson's business plan to develop a small island into a resort hotel, island inhabitants be damned. You can see Kemp's empathy for the locals turn to disgust at what's going on around him, and in this he starts to find his voice as a writer.
The second question about this movie: how is it compared to the book? I've read a handful of Thompson's books, and enjoyed this one (even if I didn't feel it was up to "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas" or "Hell's Angels"). It's not a super-famous novel with legions of fans that are going to revolt at the slightest deviation from the holy scripture. And that's good news, because much of what is taken from the book are the broad strokes (the Thompson-esque main character, the settings, the island development plot). The flavor is there, and that's more important that slavish imitation.
Unfortunately, the movie deviates from the book at the worst time: the ending. In the novel, the characters are forced to scatter because of more legal troubles in the middle of the night. They help each other out in whatever way they can manage, but they're all ultimately on their own. It has the feeling of a brotherhood of scoundrels parting with fondness for one another. In the movie, events wrap up much less dramatically, and with a big, fat Hollywood bow tied around it.
Kemp literally rides off into the sunset, having stolen one of Sanderson's boats, with the intent of tracking down Chenault in New York. We even get the "Animal House" ending (without the benefit of the gang pulling off some giant prank in triumph before) - at some point during his travels on the sea, Kemp turns into Thompson, becoming a revered journalist and getting the girl.
Granted, the movie isn't aiming for the same tone as "Fear and Loathing" or as in Thompson's writing, but the end kind of took the sails out of the movie for my tastes. It was literally about as trite and artificial ending as you can come up with, and felt kind of unearned (particularly after the sequence of events surrounding Carnival). That's frustrating, especially since I was pretty much on board up until that point.
There's some really good acting in this movie. It's fun to watch Depp do his Hunter S. Thompson again (especially after so many pirate movies), Giovanni Ribisi is fantastic as the greasy, filthy Moburg (greasy isn't enough to describe him; what would you call a concentrated grease?), Michael Rispoli really inhabits his "been there too long" sidekick Sala. Amber Heard is beautiful enough to blind, and it's not hard to believe that Depp's character would be smitten with her at first sight. And generally speaking, this was a decent movie based on a decent book. Unfortunately, the two don't share the same mistakes, each one has it's own problems to deal with.
3 / 5 - Theatre