An episodic tale of journalistic muck-raking, romance and copious substance abuse set in Puerto Rico in the early sixties, The Rum Diary features a dream team of idiosyncratic talents.
The writer-director is Bruce Robinson, of the 1987 booze-up Withnail & I, who disappeared from filmmaking in disgust almost 20 years ago when his third film, Jennifer Eight, was taken away from him by his studio. The Rum Diary script is based on a novel from the late gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson, begun in the early sixties and not published until 1998.
The film stars Thompson’s Hollywood pal Johnny Depp, returning to indie film roots from too many years of looting the box office in the blockbuster Pirates of the Caribbean movies. With a secondary cast that includes Richard Jenkins, Giovanni Ribisi and Aaron Eckhart, all portents look good, except the news that the studio sat on the film for three years before releasing it.
The commercial concerns about The Rum Diary aren’t hard to understand: Neither family friendly nor rude and crude enough for The Hangover fans, the movie is a mildly disreputable, old-fashioned tale that seems sealed in amber as much as soaked in rum. Robinson’s creation of a world of tropical rot (shot with a 16mm camera with natural light in San Juan locations) is persuasive enough, and his literate dialogue occasionally sparkles, but the stakes never feel particularly urgent here. That’s especially true of Depp’s diffident, mildly comic, bumbling performance, with a default puzzled blankness occasionally transforming into a bug-eyed double-take.
The opening scene sees Depp, as journalist Paul Kemp, awakening in a trashed Puerto Rican hotel room with the arrival of room service. The hard-drinking New York reporter has faked his résumé to take refuge at the under-funded San Juan Star, in a job no one else wants, covering Americans visiting bowling alleys and horoscope writing. While unexplained protestors regularly mill around the front doors of the newspaper, The San Juan Star studiously ignores the news for social columns and tourist gossip.
The supporting cast of journalistic riffraff is uniformly excellent: The editor is a bewigged neurotic (Jenkins), the staff photographer is the slovenly Sala (Michael Rispoli), and the apocalyptic religion reporter is Moburg (Ribisi), a Hitler-admiring zombie who has had “the entire substructure of his brain destroyed by alcohol.”
The core of the story is about Kemp’s awakening from naiveté to insight (though Depp is perhaps two decades too old to seem convincingly naive). The snake in this inebriated Eden is slick PR man Sanderson (Eckhart), who wants Kemp to write promotional copy for a new environment-despoiling resort complex built on a military base. Bewitched by Sanderson’s sexy, impulsive girlfriend Chenault (Amber Heard), Kemp becomes beholden to Sanderson – after he’s bailed out of jail, provided him with cash, the loan of a red Corvette and a chance to be around Chenault. The movie’s strongest sequence is a sinister evening during a carnival dance, which changes the relationship between the two men, and sends Kemp on a course of rather conventional, and not entirely convincing, redemption.
Essentially an affectionate and personal project to honour Thompson’s memory, The Rum Diary occasionally strains to evoke the journalist’s surreal black humour. A scene in which Moburg provides Kemp with a military-grade hallucinogen evokes an unhelpful comparison to the more riotous hallucinations of Depp’s other Hunter S. Thompson film, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998). While that earlier movie desperately wanted to blow your mind, The Rum Diary is content to tickle your feelings of nostalgia.
The Rum Diary
- Written and directed by Bruce Robinson
- Starring Johnny Depp, Giovanni Ribisi and Amber Heard
- Classification: 14A