The Rum Diary review

Bruce Robinson brings Hunter S Thompson's The Rum Diary to the big screen, with a bit of help from Johnny Depp. Here's our review...

With two and a half unpublished novels under his belt, Paul Kemp (Johnny Depp) is definitely a writer. Unfortunately for Kemp, his best and most creative writing work is on his resume, which is full of lies, half-truths, and exaggerations.

However, the work is good enough to get Kemp a job with the San Juan Star, an English-language paper in Puerto Rico catering mostly to tourists and staffed by a motley assortment of flotsam and jetsam. After all, editor in chief E.J. Lotterman (Richard Jenkins) has no better options, and Kemp is young and +fiery enough to add a little spirit to a dispirited news room which features a heavy-drinking photographer named Sala (Michael Rispoli) and the deranged Moburg (Giovanni Ribisi) among many other colorful characters.

While the news room is depressing and the San Juan Star is struggling, Puerto Rico circa 1960 is in the middle of a massive property boom. Lots of people are getting very rich, and if you know the right people you might be able to get in on it, too. Sanderson (Aaron Eckhart) is one of those people. He started out working for the paper, but soon branched out, using his contacts and schmoozing skills to make a whole lot of money in less than legal ways.

Sanderson sees Kemp, with his writing skill and lack of connections, as an asset. Sanderson’s girlfriend Chenault (Amber Heard) sees Kemp as the sort of fun free spirit that Sanderson is not. Meanwhile, Kemp has stumbled into a situation that he cannot possibly understand, on an island in the middle of a culture clash.

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Director Bruce Robinson is famous for his cult classic Withnail & I, which is a semi-autobiographical tale the type of which The Rum Diary’s author, Hunter S Thompson, became famous for. As such, he’s the perfect choice to adapt The Rum Diary into a movie, and he does his best with the source material.

The Rum Diary is a bit rambling and aimless, which makes it exactly like the source novel. Robinson’s script isn’t as faithful as Terry Gilliam’s work on Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas, with Robinson tweaking The Rum Diary into some sort of Fear And Loathing prequel, as if Paul Kemp would drop a whole lot of acid and morph into the terror of Las Vegas, Raoul Duke.

In a way, it makes sense. Kemp and Duke are both stand-ins for Thompson himself, and the characters in The Rum Diary are based off of real people Thompson worked with and associated with during his year in San Juan working for the real-life San Juan Star. However, if such a thing is possible, The Rum Diary focuses too much on Chenault, Sanderson, and Kemp, and not enough on the weird oddities that surround Kemp.

The scenes in which Kemp interacts with Sala and Moburg, for example, are brilliantly funny, while the scenes in which Kemp interacts with Sanderson and associates are much dryer. It’s a bit like two movies in one, and I preferred the one with Moburg and Sala.

Part of the reason for this preference is that Giovanni Ribisi steals every scene he’s in. Moburg is hilarious, and Ribisi really adds a layer to the character with his expressions and the voice he uses to speak as Moburg. In some ways, it’s as big of a break-out as Depp’s first appearance as Hunter S Thompson.

Speaking of Depp, he and Michael Rispoli have great chemistry together, which is important as they spend the most time together, too. And Amber Heard makes a beautiful, vulnerable young Chenault, while Aaron Eckhart is a great angry sleazeball.

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The movie itself is visually stunning. Puerto Rico has never looked more beautiful, and Bruce Robinson makes great use of the island’s stunning features with a lot of wide shots, elevated/crane shots, and slow sweeping transitions. Even the less pleasant parts of Puerto Rican culture, like cock-fights, look beautiful. In a subtle way, it’s as artistic as Gilliam, but not as showy.

Is The Rum Diary a runaway success? No, it’s not going to be the instant classic that Fear And Loathing was, but the source material isn’t as good, either. Still, if you’re a fan of Johnny Depp, Hunter S Thompson, or the beautiful landscape of Puerto Rico, The Rum Diary is a worthy film. It’s not great, but it’s very good.

US correspondent Ron Hogan was born and raised in Hunter Thompson’s hometown, went to the same high school as Thompson (and Warren Oates), and is a lifelong fan of Thompson’s unique brand of journalism, even if he can’t write that way himself. Find more by Ron daily at Shaktronics and PopFi.

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4 out of 5