Many A-list actors adopt a “one for them, one for me” mentality: they make one big movie for a studio so they can make a smaller passion project for themselves. Considering Depp’s relationship with Hunter S. Thompson (the infamous novelist/journalist whose novel provides the basis for this film), it’s clear The Rum Diary falls into the latter category. It’s just too bad that the “one for him” wasn’t a better movie.
Written for the screen and directed by Bruce Robinson, The Rum Diary follows the story of Paul Kemp (Depp), a washed out novelist who goes to Puerto Rico to write for a local newspaper. Soon, he’s intoxicated not only by the alcohol he’s constantly swilling, but also by a beautiful girl named Chenault (Amber Heard). She’s with Sanderson (Eckhart), a wealthy playboy with a ton influence working on an illegal land development scheme. Sanderson invites Kemp to be a part of the project and, after a ton of stumbling and drunken debauchery, Kemp and the rest of the guys at the paper take it upon themselves to bring down “the bastards” by blowing the whistle on their operation.
There are a lot of elements that I liked about this movie. It’s hard to knock gorgeous locales, solid acting, and an intriguing plot – especially when you consider I have a bias in favor of stories involving journalism. But at a certain point, the movie itself begins to take on characteristics of its main character: it seems to drag for an interminable amount of time, bouncing from point to point with a “hey, look over there!” attitude and waiting far too late to attempt to wrap things up in a neat little package in the third act. It’s not as “out there” as Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas – the other Hunter S. Thompson project in which Depp has starred – but it kind of tries to have it both ways with trippy drugged-out sequences tossed into the middle of a narrative that is, admittedly, a lot more cohesive than Fear and Loathing‘s. The main problem with The Rum Diary is the structure: by having the first two thirds of the film as this breezy, stumbling, quasi-romantic discovery piece, it feels forced and unnatural when the final act arrives and story elements have to be quickly wrapped up.
Depp has made himself a superstar by playing these types of roles, so it’s not much of a departure from his past work. Even if you removed Fear and Loathing from the equation, simply mix his lead character in Rango with Captain Jack Sparrow and you’ve got Paul Kemp. I was much more interested in Bob Salas, the sidekick character more inhabited than played by former “Sopranos” actor Michael Rispoli. He was gruff but lovable, and seemed like the kind of guy you’d want to hang out with in an unpredictable island environment. Aaron Eckhart was great as the guy you love to hate, but this also wasn’t that big of a change (or challenge) for him. Giovanni Ribisi really went for it with his portrayal of Moberg, a guy who drinks 400 proof alcohol and listens to Adolph Hitler speeches on vinyl. Richard Jenkins was really entertaining as the editor of the San Juan Star, playing “the man” as it were, forcing Kemp to curtail his writing to fit in with an idealized version of the American Dream.
Though the novel was written back in the 1960s, much of this film is especially relevant today with the Occupy Wall Street movement going on and this movie essentially railing against corporate greed. Our buddy Vince Mancini at FilmDrunk liked it far more than I did, and even with all of the meandering in the middle of the movie, it’s easy to see how The Rum Diary would have a special charm to fans of Thompson’s work. That said, I don’t think I’d ever watch this movie again – and if you’ve read this far, that probably tells you all you need to know. Until next time…