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Movie Review: The Rum Diary

October 28, 2011

As The Rum Diary closes  “Dedicated to Hunter S. Thompson 1937-2005″ fills the screen. While plenty films of honor loved ones that served as inspiration or support for a piece, few are as fueled with admiration as this. It is an ode written from pupil to mentor, a piece of fiction glorifying and building on a myth of a man that is already filled with legend. It is not the story of the man who we all know as Hunter S. Thompson, but instead a idealization of how the man came to be.

It is the story of Paul Kemp (Johnny Depp), an aspiring novelist, who decides to try “writing for money” for a change. He does this by getting hired on as a writer for a newspaper located in Puerto Rico. He seems unaware of what this job entails, regardless it does not stop him from attempting it. He has been assigned to do one thing: write about Puerto Rico, which is exactly what he intends to do. The only problem is that what Kemp writes and what the his editor, Lotterman (Richard Jenkins), wants to publish are two very different things .

What Kemp sees is a land filled with beautiful people who are being overrun by the “great white sharks” or obese, white American tourists who fly to the island, not to explore the wonders of a new culture, but to perfect their bowling game from the confines of the luxury hotel on the island. This corruption is possible because of men like Sanderson, played by Aaron Eckhart, a former employee of the paper who know works in “PR” and now lives a life decadent enough to include a bedazzled turtle. He sees opportunity in Kemp, but will exploit and abuse anything that might earn him a dollar. This excludes his fiancee Chenault, played but the stunning Amber Heard. She is, of course, the one thing that Kemp truly wants.

We also meet Sala (Michael Rispoli). The resident photographer for the paper who knows ever nook and cranny on the island, but never seems to be taking any pictures. Their camaraderie is instant. They bond through rum, problematic situations, rum, hate of explotative consumerism and more rum. Then there is also Moburg, played by Giovanni Ribisi, a washed-up writer who lost the battle of his mind to rum and spends his days in a uneven stagger that would make Jack Sparrow seem sober.

While all of these characters are archetypes placed to further the story that Kemp seems destined to act out, they are performed solidly from start to finish. They cannot save the film, however, from its disjointedness. There is a lot of story here, but the film ends up feeling episodic, partly because of the overall structure of the film, but also because there is just so much going on. The plot includes a love story between a near-femme fatale and a man looking to get into trouble, one of a corrupt industry taking over the little man (in this case Puerto Rico) and lastly the romanticizing of a writer’s inception: his shift from trained writer to inspired voice.

Individually each story might be a compelling one, but Bruce Robinson, the writer and director of the film, seems indecisive on which story he wants to tell the most. It is a film that takes on too much and is overwhelmed, not by a lack of, but by an excessive amount of ideas. This is a film that has a lot of say, it just doesn’t know how to say it all at the exact same time. The blend between comedy, romance and drama ends up being too much and instead of any emotional investment, I instead just felt pulled around from one emotion to the next.

The mythos of this film is almost grander than the final product. It became Depp’s pet project, legend has it, after he stumbled upon an unpublished manuscript during preparation for Thompson and Depp’s previous film together, the cult classic Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Depp was instrumental in getting the novel published and has been trying to get this movie made ever since. The Rum Diary has been through more than a few directors and certainly its shares of rough drafts, but I doubt its love of Thompson has ever wavered. It was even rumored that Depp made last year’s The Tourist  just as a means to get financing.

Thus it should come as no surprise that Thompson appears to be Johnny Depp’s greatest influence in creating the protagonist. Depp’s Kemp seems to be the precursor to the infamous Thompson that we have all come to know. Kemp is a Thompson that is pre-drugs, but post-booze. He understands the wrongs of the world, but isn’t so cynical that he doesn’t believe someone can change it. He is a hero in the truest sense of the word and it is somewhere in this that the character ceases to feel real. The film never gets inside his head and all we are left with is an detached perspective of Kemp and/or Thompson instead of insight into what makes the writer truly tick, which is too bad because I bet its a really interesting in there. The Rum Diary is an honorable piece that falls short, not for lack of enthusiasm, but possibly just for loving something just a bit too much.

2 1/2 out of 3 stars


The Rum Diary is directed by Bruce Robinson. Starring Johnny Depp, Aaron Eckhart, Giovanni Ribisi,Michael Rispoli and Amber Heard. Written by Bruce Robinson.


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