Early on in The Rum Diary American journalist Paul Kemp (Johnny Depp) tells a cabbie in Puerto Rico that he can’t speak Spanish. A few minutes later, Kemp meets Lotterman (Richard Jenkins), the editor of a struggling local newspaper. Lotterman discusses Kemp’s resume and is particularly impressed by the fact that it says he’s fluent in Spanish. Kemp is calmly anxious, his eyes hidden behind a pair of garish sunglasses. These he wears for seemingly half the movie to hide his ‘conjunctivitis’ (code for hangover). One wonders how he would survive without them.
Adapted from the autobiographical novel of the same name by Hunter S. Thompson, The Rum Diary is a scattershot but enjoyable excursion into the world of gonzo journalism and 1960s Puerto Rico. Here, Depp is sort of reprising his role from Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, as both the Raoul Duke character from that movie and Kemp from this one are based on Thompson himself. I don’t know much about the late author but Depp is an ace. He mutters as if to speak and seems to have mastered the various degrees of drunkenness, aiding the investigation as to why the rum is always gone.
Kemp falls in with Sala (Michael Rispoli) who also works for the newspaper. They became roommates and share several adventures involving booze and drugs ‘used on communists’. Giovanni Ribisi is also on hand as greasy Moberg. He listens to records of Adolf Hitler and hangs around even though he was fired. Their alcohol-fuelled escapades are pleasant enough, which is a nice change of pace in an age when movies like The Hangover play up the decadent side of drinking. There’s a good deal of comedy too, but it’s mostly tongue-in-cheek chuckles rather than raucous laughter.
That said, the plot isn’t so much linear as it is all over the place. The story is more of an episodic piece following Kemp’s misadventures as he stumbles through life. At one point he lands with Hal Sanderson (Aaron Eckhart), a property developer with less than legal dealings. Kemp is more interested in Sanderson’s fiancée however – Amber Heard’s sexy Chenault, who could easily pass for a Bond girl. Such stories vary in quality but I was never bored by their madcap whirlwind tour of the highs and lows of Puerto Rico.
It might meander and jump around a bit but I find the film’s structure to be a compelling reflection of Kemp’s intoxicated state of mind. Scenes move at a fast clip to prevent stagnation and although it could do with being a touch more plot-driven, it’s the themes of journalistic integrity – sticking to your principles vs selling out – that matter most. Perhaps the greatest irony of The Rum Diary is that screenwriter and director Bruce Robinson, who was sober for close to seven years, turned to drinking in order to get around writer’s block while working on the film. Fitting, I guess.
Rambling and unfocussed, The Rum Diary is regardless a relatively brisk but lengthy look into the gonzo world of Hunter S. Thompson’s inebriated journalism. This exotic and strangely agreeable tale benefits from the talents of Johnny Depp and a central story conveyed by themes rather than mere material plotting.