Director: Bruce Robinson
Writer: Bruce Robinson, Hunter S. Thompson (novel)
Cast: Johnny Depp, Michael Rispoli, Amber Heard
Thirteen years on from his starring role in the adaptation of Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Johnny Depp was the main driving force behind the production of The Rum Diary, an adaptation of one of Thompson’s early novels, written in the 1960s but unpublished until 1998. Depp was Bruce Robinson’s main motivation to write and direct the film, something he has not done since struggling against studio interference during the production of Jennifer Eight, which was releasedin 1992.
As a friend and avid fan of Thompson, Depp’s heart was certainly in the project and it shows. He gives a droll, understated performance as journalist, Paul Kemp, who relocates from New York to Puerto Rico to work for the island’s major newspaper. Its editor and journalists are going through the motions, printing the stories their American audiences want to read, while trying to enjoy the island life, principally through the medium of rum.
The opening scene sets the tone for the rest of the film; Kemp gets out of bed, staggers to the window and, as he tears open the curtains, the light reveals a bruised lip and a bloodshot eye. The action revolves around drinking and, while it does not approach Fear and Loathing levels of debauchery, it is creative enough to keep you entertained. Sala (Michael Rispoli), Kemp’s partner in crime, is a strong supporting character, while Moburg (Giovanni Ribisi), a Nazi fanatic whose alcoholism distinguishes him even in this environment, adds an extra comic dimension. It is silly without going over the top; the weirder elements are presented with enough restraint that they appear natural – merely products of the environment.
The Rum Diary is not a straightforward comedy and it would be doing Thompson a disservice if it was. Kemp is looking for a serious story and stumbles across a wealthy businessman, Sanderson (Aaron Eckhart), who tries to use his position at the newspaper to aid the fraudulent development of a lucrative tourist resort on an untouched island. Kemp’s interest in the project is understandably enhanced by the proximity of Sanderson’s beautiful girlfriend, Chenault (Amber Heard). She adds character to the wealthy side of Puerto Rico, and symbolises its ultimate attraction. The relationship that develops between Chenault and Kemp is initially interesting but ultimately never goes anywhere.
Robinson maintains a strong atmosphere and utilises the setting well, perfectly recreating a degraded paradise. The characters are perpetually sweating; they retain that essential grime of humanity, so prominent in Thompson’s writing, as they move around the islands that it will be their legacy to have destroyed.
On many levels, The Rum Diary is a vibrant and entertaining film, but it always lacks an edge. It is well made but somehow monotonous; there is no genuine crisis or conflict, no scenes that will live long in the memory. The ending is sentimentalised but lacks an emotional kick, perhaps due to the departure of too many key players. In the end, it cannot match Thompson’s energy – not many films, or books for that matter, can – but it is nevertheless a worthwhile adaptation that will keep you entertained.
Extended version of a review originally published in The Student on 15 November 2011