Directed by: Bruce Robinson (Withnail & I)
Starring: Johnny Depp, Aaron Eckhart, Michael Rispoli, Amber Heard, Richard Jenkins, Giovanni Ribisi
I wanted to like Bruce Robinson’s The Rum Diary more than I do, although I think I’ll actually like it more than I currently think I do. In other words, I think the more this curious movie sits with me, the more I will appreciate it. The movie isn’t curious in any overt sense. It’s not hard to follow, structurally challenging or complex in any signficant way. It’s certainly more user-friendly than Johnny Depp’s earlier foray into the world of Hunter S. Thompson, the Terry Gilliam-directed Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998).
No, its oddness is rooted in the material itself. The book on which it’s based is an early work by Thompson—a work that Depp came across and convinced the author to have published nearly 40 years after its writing. It purports to tell the story of Paul Kemp (Depp)—a journalist working on a drinking problem—who lands a job at a newspaper in San Juan, Puerto Rico, primarily on the strength of being the only applicant. The story follows his adventures, as well as his attempts at being a crusading reporter in a hotbed of corruption and apathy. Kemp, of course, is a thinly veiled version of Thompson. The film compounds this in its ending credit that uses the names interchangeably. The thing is, Thompson was never hired to work as a newspaper reporter in San Juan, so the story can only be called quasi-autobiographical wish-fulfillment. It’s not that unusual a thing to use as the basis of a novel, but it does make such works factually slippery. It also makes the reason for the film adaptation’s existence vague.
I suspect The Rum Diary exists because Johnny Depp loved Thompson, and felt a deep kinship with him—and because he thought that Bruce Robinson, who’d done two films Depp admired, could bring it to the screen with the same depth he brought to Withail & I in 1987. The idea was that if Robinson could find the sad, stunted humanity within Withnail (Richard E. Grant), he could do the same with Kemp and his peculiar cohorts. And that turns out to be only sort of true. The problem is that when all is said and done—and all the semi-denials are taken out of the way—the “I” character of Marwood (Paul McGann) in Withnail was Bruce Robinson. (McGann is even made to look like him). Robinson had a true insider’s view on Withnail (as much as anyone could) and that time. That’s not true with in Robinson’s take on Kemp/Thompson. It’s also perhaps why the less-defined supporting characters are often more interesting than Kemp.
The story isn’t much, and there’s not much structure to it. Essentially, Kemp—who absurdly describes his drinking as being “on the high end of social”—finds himself churning out an astrology column and Puerto Rico Tourism Board puff pieces, while wanting to do hard-hitting articles that don’t fly with job-security-conscious editor Lotterman (Richard Jenkins). In the meantime, Kemp becomes friends with jaded news photographer Sala (Michael Rispoli, Kick-Ass) and the sometimes-fired, perpetually drunk-and-drugged Hitler aficionado, Moburg (Giovanni Ribisi). He also becomes besotted with Cheanault (Amber Heard), who turns out to be the mistress of crooked land developer Sanderson (Aaron Eckhart), who, for all intents and purposes, runs the island. Sanderson also becomes interested in Kemp, who, as a member of the press, might be useful in helping smooth over a dubious land deal on a nearby island.
What happens is less important—and ultimately, it can almost be said that nothing really does happen—than the often very amusing vignettes and characterizations. Depp is fine as Kemp/Thompson. He has all the mannerisms nailed down, and he does convey the sense of a man who has yet to “find a way to write like myself,” but somehow the characters played by Rispoli and Ribisi were more interesting to me. Their inexplicable obsessions, and the fact that they know (whether they admit it or not) that, unlike Kemp, they’re not going anywhere, gives them a resonance he lacks. Maybe the sad truth is they found their voices some time back and the discovery was less than they expected.
Overall, The Rum Diary misses greatness, but contains elements of greatness of the kind that only comes from filmmakers who are willing to take real chances. That those chances don’t always or completely work is the price you pay. But here, enough of those risks do pay off, and the film is worthwhile even if it’s not what it might have been. Rated R for language, drug use and sexuality.