Paul Kemp (Johnny Depp) is a US journalist who arrives in Puerto Rico at the dawn of the 1960’s to take up a post at the US-backed and funded San Juan Star. He is given meaningless fluff pieces and pointless horoscopes to write, which become increasingly frustrating as he encounters more of the island’s indigenous life and accordingly more meaty topics relating to poverty and deprivation start to eat away at him. Simultaneously he strikes up a friendship with Aaron Eckhart’s rapacious property developer and his free-wheeling girlfriend Chenault (Amber Heard) who captivates him with her beauty while he also begins to sink under a thick cloud of drink and narcotics.
Having played Hunter S. Thompson in Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas, Depp remained on good terms with him and in fact pressed Thompson to not only publish The Rum Diary (the unpublished manuscript lay in Thompson’s basement for years) but agree to it being made into a film. Depp has clearly put in plenty of effort to get the project made, including trying to get an initially reluctant Bruce Robinson (Withnail & I) to not only adapt the screenplay but direct the film as well.
So what of the end result? Well, the labours of Depp and everyone else have not been entirely in vain, but it remains a slightly muddled film. On the one hand, we have the amusingly and vividly depicted descent of Kemp (a transparent Thompson alter-ego) into rum-addled delirium and the beginnings of what became a life-long experimentation with pharmaceuticals, yet in parallel we see Kemp concerned by the avaricious pillaging of Puerto Rico and the birth of his unbridled antipathy towards authoritarianism. As he struggles to find his voice, (“I don’t know how to write like me” – one sympathises), eventually he discovers it within the outcry of the disadvantaged, put upon and subjugated. It is a compelling character arc and Depp essays it perfectly but it remains a somewhat schizophrenic film, covering to many disparate strands and at time sacrificing focus in favour of stylistic visuals.
Robinson was undoubtedly the right writer and director for this film, finding Hunter’s voice easily and giving us (during the more free-wheeling sequences) some great visuals and laugh-out-loud moments. The crisp HD transfer does a first-rate job of conveying the sticky, oppressive heat of Puerto Rico and the sweaty offices of the San Juan Star, while Eckhart’s slick, shiny beach-front property is all gleaming white and reflective surfaces. Giovanni Ribisi is as good as he has ever been as an utterly addled journalist at the Star, shuffling around in a permanent haze and daze but eventually this boils down to being Depp’s film. By turns baffled, confused, appalled, desperate, frantic and purposeful, it is another excellent role and another top-drawer performance, altogether less affected than some of his recent, better known work and in his final speech to all “the bastards out there”, utterly convincing and compelling.
The stylistic and tonal shifts continue to grate, even as the film gives us much to savour and commendably the film avoids getting bogged down in the worthiness that might have caused it to drag as Kemp develops a stricken conscience. It seems strange that these detractions cast such a shadow over the enjoyment of the film as a whole, but detractions and distractions they remain for what is at times an impressive, affecting and stimulating film, even if it is not a great one. You can rent The Rum Diary from today on Blu-ray and DVD.
Extras: A making of documentary is brief but informative and everyone contributes in approving but not gushing tones. It is all quite sincere and useful. The second making of is actually the making of the novel and how it went from an unpublished manuscript to a published work. It alternates between talking heads (publisher, editor, historian) and filmed sequences of Thompson and his editors paring down the manuscript. It is an unusual but fascinating special feature, though the package is overall a little thin.