Bruce Robinson’s The Rum Diary, based on the autobiographical novel by Hunter S. Thompson, seems to have taken an inordinate amount of heat for being too conventional, as if Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas – the decidedly unconventional 1998 Terry Gilliam film that also starred Johnny Depp as Thompson – was a smash hit with critics.
And yes, next to Fear and Loathing, The Rum Diary can be considered conventional; the novel was written by Thompson when he was 22 (though not published until 1998), before he had gone fully gonzo.
The narrative is semi-coherent, moving in fits and starts, attempting to reach out to something it can grab hold of but never maintaining a firm grasp. This indecisiveness will inevitably be viewed as a fault by many, but it’s a revealing and affectionate look into a creative mind not yet fully formed.
Johnny Depp stars as Paul Kemp, an American journalist we first meet in a Puerto Rico hotel room standing above an overturned minibar with claw marks by the keyhole. Kemp is a “social” drinker, he informs Lotterman (Richard Jenkins), the editor-in-chief at the San Juan Star, wearing sunglasses to conceal a hangover; Lotterman sees through the guise but gives him a job writing horoscopes.
Kemp was the only one to apply for the job, and he seems more functional than some of the other employees. And the position needs to be filled; the last guy was “raped to death.”
At the Star, Kemp befriends photographer Bob Sala (Michael Rispoli), who makes some extra money cockfighting, and perpetually drunk/high reporter Moburg (Giovanni Ribisi), who listens to Hitler on vinyl. And he’s brought into the upper-class social circle of Sanderson (Aaron Eckhart), who manages shady real estate dealings; what Kemp is really interested in, however, is Sanderson’s beautiful girlfriend, Chenault (Amber Heard).
But what is Kemp really after? Booze. Drugs. The girl. A car. An important story; the destruction of local culture by American interests, or maybe, illegal real estate practices, or newspaper corruption. He wants to do right by his friends and colleagues. He wants to find his voice. He wants to write a novel. Paul Kemp wants to save the world; that’s a tall enough order, but he’s trying to do it through a cloud of alcohol and drugs.
The Rum Diary, Kemp’s stream-of-consciousness adventures in Puerto Rico, is a reflection on this: it’s a wonderful portrait of an unformed mind branching out in seven different directions and grasping at straws, a portrait of the young man unsure of his place in life.
A life defined by drugs: Kemp only seems to find his voice after dropping LSD. It’s also a revelatory look at a young Hunter S. Thompson, both as the writer of the source material, and his view of himself as Paul Kemp.
Bruce Robinson made the cult classics Withnail & I and How to Get Ahead in Advertising, but hadn’t directed a film since 1992’s Jennifer Eight. He’s fought his own battles with alcohol (and, reportedly, started drinking again during production of the film). This was a personal project for him, along with star Johnny Depp, a friend of Thompson who was instrumental in getting the film made.
The cast is uniformly excellent. Depp might be too old for the character, but he’s a perfectly enigmatic presence in the lead. Heard is stunningly beautiful as the object of his affection. But best of all are the fellow journalists played by Ribisi and Rispoli (who’s a revelation here), the friendly miscreants who gain Kemp’s (and our) affection.
No, it’s not another Fear and Loathing, but The Rum Diary succeeds in its own right as a personal, passionate look at the formative beginnings of Hunter S. Thompson.
Bonus: memorable dialogue, a smooth score by Christopher Young, and gorgeous Puerto Rico locales (courtesy cinematographer Dariusz Wolski), which ensures that the film is easy on the ears and eyes even if you’re not into its spirit.