Movie Review: “The Rum Diary”

Written by Alicia Kaiser November 23, 2011

I wanted an acid-trip, but binge-drinking will do.

For the second time in his film career, Johnny Depp signed up to play, and thus pay homage to, his self-proclaimed hero gonzo-journalist Hunter S. Thompson. This time around, rather than playing the devil himself, as was the case in 1998’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Depp plays the Thompson-esque Paul Kemp, from the semi-autobiographical 1998 fiction novel-turned-film The Rum Diary.  While Thompson’s typical characters and exploits are present in this 2011 film – the sociopathic protagonists; the drinks; the drugs and their subsequent consequences – do not expect this film to be anything at all like two hour acid-trip that was Fear and Loathing.

Written at a time before Thompson had found his true literary voice, The Rum Diary doesn’t quite propose the flavour that has made his work so infamous – and director Bruce Robinson (Withnail & I) definitely does not attempt to disguise the lack of Thompson-voice in the film. Instead, Robinson, coming back for his first directorial stint in almost two decades, writes the screenplay specifically emphasizing Thompson’s lack of voice, and subsequently, Kemp’s search for his own voice to carry the the overbearing theme of the film. In this regard, The Rum Diary is a rather slow-moving film; at least in the sense that it is not what you’d be expecting from the typical ranting madness of Hunter S Thompson.

Set in the 60s, The Rum Diary revolves around the antics of Kemp as he arrives in Puerto Rico from New York at the cause of “growing tired”, as the film simply alludes, of the boisterous and exploitative America under the Eisenhower administration. Kemp quickly finds work at The San Juan Star, a bumbling, crumbling poor excuse for a newspaper on its way out of business, as a feature journalist. Kemp is hired, nonetheless, for his diligent and honest writing tactics in the desperate hopes of saving the dying paper but instead he quickly, and accidentally becomes embroiled in extracurricular schemes including, but not limited to: drinking way too much rum, cock fight gambling and becoming romantically obsessed with an American beauty, Chenault (Amber Heard), who is the arm-candy girlfriend to corrupt businessman Sanderson (Aaron Eckhart).

In Robinson’s adaptation, he renders Kemp and his artistic development the main plot and everything else – the conflict, the climax, the conclusion that I assume are cultivated in Thompson’s novel –more or less irrelevant. The Rum Diary, I admit, was a little difficult to digest because there is no real withstanding conflict driving the narrative. Yes, there is a thread of danger as Kemp is roped in by Sanderson and his gang of white collared Yankees attempting to exploit the developing country by building massive hotel resorts, but Kemp is so drunk and googley-eyed over Chenault the whole time that the antagonists never actually seem that much of a threat; at least not any threat to the story that the viewer is involved in.

The film focuses more on Kemp and his growth from an itinerant journalist running away from America because he’s mad at her to Kemp as an unemployed, itinerant journalist who spirals into dangerous alcoholism and drug abuse, but who, through this, has more of less accidentally found his literary voice and is finally ready to do something about his anger.

The majority of the films chuckles arise from the interactions Kemp has with his new “friends.” As befitting to his inclination for the fermented sauce, Kemp willingly offers his company to the dregs of the newspaper staff Bob Sala (Michael Rispoli) and Moberg (Giovanni Ribisi). Kemp, Sala and Moberg fill in the plots gaps by engaging in all manner of shenanigans; most of which will have you laughing, groaning, and wishing you were as damn free-spirited as these – probably insane – men.

Overall, I found this movie to be challenging. At first, I was admittedly quite bored while watching it. Soon, however, then the story picks up with hilarious anecdotes that seem irrelevant to the established plot. Eventually, I was stumped and in awe at the fact that the film effectively transgresses any sort of need for a conclusion or resolve; it just kind of ends right in the middle and I thought that was pretty damn brave. The more I think about the movie, the more I appreciate it, but I would never recommend it to anyone looking for some cheap ‘n’ easy entertainment. This is one of those movies that must sit and steep in the mind like gratifying vintage rum; the process makes it taste that much sweeter.

My Rating: 7/10


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About Alicia Kaiser

Alicia Kaiser

Alicia Kaiser: University student; Movie enthusiast; Nerd. She enjoys reading, writing, partaking in shenanigans and making sweet crafts. Currently, she is simultaneously employed by and a student at the University of Victoria. While she moseys towards her degree with Major in English Literature and a Minor in Professional Writing, she can be found in UVic Marketing doing cool, grown-up stuff. For Alicia, watching movies is comparable to (if not more important than), eating, sleeping and physical activity. Her reviews are full of passion, pizzazz, analysis, and introspection. Enjoy.

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