I didn’t know what to think of The Rum Diary when I first saw the trailer, but I was intrigued. It’s based on the semi-autobiographical (but fictional) novel of the same name by famed author and journalist Hunter S. Thompson. Thompson is a pop culture icon, known for his ardent rejection of conformity and for pioneering “gonzo” journalism.
Johnny Depp (Alice in Wonderland) is always a potential draw for me, though I don’t usually find his quirkiness appealing. In The Rum Diary he portrays journalist Paul Kemp with a relatable quality not found in most of his roles. Kemp is in 1960’s Puerto Rico to write for a fledgling newspaper. He wants to comment on the political turmoil in San Juan, but his editor wants fluff pieces to appease their readership. Kemp decides to take what he can get, and initially he’s hired for the mundane task of writing horoscopes.
The Rum Diary was patterned after Hunter S. Thompson’s brief time in Puerto Rico when he applied (and was rejected) for a job at a newspaper, but still made friends and acclimated himself to the local area. Puerto Rico plays like a town where the rum runs freely and following the rules is optional. When Kemp meets a former newspaper employee turned hotshot named Sanderson (Aaron Eckhart, The Dark Knight), he gets a chance to line his pockets and keep his editor at bay. Sanderson and some other influential but corrupt locals want to develop untouched Puerto Rican soil and need Kemp to insert certain viewpoints in his articles to soften up the public when they hear about the increased taxes they will have to pay to fund the project. In addition to trying to bridge the gap between his personal and professional spheres, Kemp’s life is complicated by his attraction to Sanderson’s girlfriend Chenault (Amber Heard, Drive Angry), a fetching blonde he meets by chance only to find out later that she belongs to another.
Again, Paul Kemp is loosely patterned after Hunter S. Thompson. To that end, he’s a raging alcoholic, but quite an endearing chap. Depp is very good as the hapless but earnest journalist trying to do relevant work without selling out. His time in Puerto Rico is one misadventure after another, as his friendship and arrangement with Sanderson begins to unravel when his affinity for Chenault leads to trouble. Everyone needs a trusty sidekick, and Kemp’s is a fellow journalist named Sala. Together they drink and stumble their way through the streets of San Juan, and it doesn’t seem like these reporters ever do much writing.
I don’t really know what to make of The Rum Diary. I enjoyed it because it was entertaining, and Puerto Rico was an inviting setting tailor made for debauchery. It was a fun and interesting movie, as I wondered what would become of Chenault and Kemp and whether the newspaper would eventually fold. However, there was an unmistakable lull in the film, where the viewer wondered just what the hell was going on. One scene in particular was very trippy, as Kemp and Sala endure a drug-induced stupor.
It’s hard to encapsulate just what this film was all about. It played like a very interesting “day in the life” of so-and-so type of movie, but I’m not sure if there was a larger point to be made. I haven’t read the book, but I’ll bet it was a page-turner, if the movie was any indication. I’m just not sure everyone will like it or “get” it. From a visual standpoint I thought it was cool and funny at times, but it wasn’t too deep or meaningful. Fans of the late Thompson may appreciate the manic, boozy feel of Kemp’s tale – but everyone else may be a little ho hum about it. If you’re a fan of Depp or Thompson or you just want to leer at Amber Heard, check it out. Otherwise, this will make a nice little flick to catch on HBO in a few months.
This article first appeared at http://poptimal.com/2011/11/the-rum-diary-review-a-boozy-joyride/ and was reprinted with permission.