Monday, March 19, 2012

New Release Review: The Rum Diary (Bruce Robinson, 2011)

Based on the debut novel of the same name by the late Hunter S. Thompson, The Rum Diary is written and directed by Bruce Robinson (Withnail and I), ending a nineteen-year absence between filmmaking endeavors. While we know there will be drinking, will the film tell a strong enough story to complement the frequently drowned sorrows of Thompson’s intriguing protagonist?

Paul Kemp (Johnny Depp), who we are first introduced to waking up in a trashed hotel room to a vicious hangover, has recently traveled to the exotic locale of Puerto Rico to write for a local newspaper. He has left the madness of New York City and the politics of the Eisenhower-era America he so despises in search of the inspiration to complete his unfinished novels, and offer his services to the newspaper’s pessimistic but no-nonsense editor, Lotterman (Richard Jenkins).

Arriving in Lotterman’s office for induction sporting sunglasses to mask his bloodshot eyes, he meets Sala (Michael Rispoli), who would later become his housemate and regular rum-drinking partner, and is assigned the horoscope column and instructed to patrol the local bowling alleys for scoops. After bunking up with Sala, and meeting another often-inebriated staff writer at the magazine, Moburg (Giovanni Ribisi), he finds himself drawn to the sweaty atmosphere of the island, which has its own share of civil unrest.

Kemp’s distractions come at first from the beautiful Chenault (Amber Heard), and later from her fiancĂ©, Sanderson (Aaron Eckhart), an American entrepreneur locked in an unsavoury real-estate scheme to utilize the island paradise for capitalist gain. He invites Kemp on board to favourably document the scheme, and influenced by Heard’s substantial hotness and presence, Kemp finds himself working with the very bastards he despises so much.

A lot of other things happen, but they unfortunately are ineffective at driving the story. This is the film’s primary problem. There is no evident story, and Kemp just floats aimlessly between meetings and events. Sala and Kemp are arrested after a night of severe intoxication, take a brief journey to Carnivale, trip out on a strong hallucinogenic and involve themselves in illegal cockfighting, all while trying to put together a story strong enough to keep the ailing paper afloat.

Thompson actually wrote the novel in 1961, but it wasn’t published until 1998, and since 2000, there have been attempts to adapt the novel, with a host of problems plaguing its journey to the big screen. Depp was initially linked to the project, but it was infamously canned due to Thompson’s displeasure at the production coming via an obscene letter, where he called the project a ‘waterhead fuckaround’.

Then there’s Robinson, who before writing the screenplay had been sober for six-and-a-half years. Suffering from writer’s block, Robinson started drinking daily, before quitting again once he had completed the script. This seems to be fitting considering the film’s boozy content, but may also explain why the plot was such a directionless mess. On the other hand, it might have also been the wacky imagination of Thompson. There is some cracking dialogue, and though not as quotable as Terry Gilliam's adaptation of the Thompson novel, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, it adds to the trip’s scattered sense of fun and supports the tone of humour.

On the cast, Depp is convincing as the writer struggling to assimilate into the foreign locale and the fall of his new paper, one lacking his own unique voice and constantly at the mercy of Lotterman ("it's too cynical") and his greedy capitalist acquaintances. Depp's full range was not required here, and considering what he has put himself through in roles in the past, this really only required him to look drunk and confused.

Michael Rispoli was perfectly cast as his drunken sidekick, Sala, while Giovanni Ribisi’s character Moburg is extremely odd indeed. I gather that Ribisi was working with some pretty vivid descriptions in Thompson’s novel. Amber Heard was very serviceable at looking sexy (unbelievably sexy, in fact), while any film starring Richard Jenkins is immediately given a lift. So, overall, I liked the casting.

The Rum Diary is a wild ride. Despite being unjustifiably overlong, there is never a dull moment. This plot-less endeavour has some admirable qualities; the luscious cinematography and placing us in an exotic location – and the juxtaposition between the beauty of the isolated private beaches and the sweaty, slum-like decay of the city centres plays an important role in the film. Though we are introduced to some colourful and memorable characters, the film is as scattershot as Depp’s head after a drunken binge.

It is fun, and very funny at times, and if you’re familiar with the writing of Hunter S. Thompson, it will prove to be a hoot. But this is too flawed a project to give a hearty recommendation, with Kemp’s identity crisis and search for a unique writing voice, for me the most interesting obstacle for his character to overcome, lost within the mess. Maybe things would have been a bit different if I had a few swigs of Moburg’s potent batch beforehand.

My Rating: ★★1/2 (C+)


  1. I think I'll pass on this one. Never been a Thompson fan and it doesn't sound like there's much in it for the non-believers.

    1. Yeh, there isn't much. I like what I have read of Thompson, and FEAR AND LOATHING. This hit the spot a few times, but the film's energy rests on the cast - and they can only do so much without a competent story backing them.

  2. Glad you didn't hate it! I thought the movie was a lot of fun, but wow the backstory behind it it's probably even better than the plot of the film, I hope somebody makes a movie about Thompson and Depp one day, Depp frequently talks about their adventures in interviews and I'm always very amused listening to all the crazy stuff they been through.

    1. It is possible there was some footage taken, behind-the-scenes of FEAR AND LOATHING and the early attempts to have THE RUM DIARY made, that could be used in a doco. It would be a riot. Yeah, I certainly didn't hate it. I had fun, but it was a bit too long - and as we have discussed, the film's plot was almost non-existent, though it raised some intriguing themes.

  3. Replies
    1. I wasn't enamoured either. Best in show: Michael Rispoli and Richard Jenkins.