Movie Review – The Rum Diary (2011)
by NIR SHALEV
The setting is San Juan, Puerto Rico; the year, 1960. American journalist and failed novelist Paul Kemp (Johnny Depp) arrives for a job interview at the San Juan Star. His toupee-sporting editor, Lotterman (Richard Jenkins) gives him the job, Kemp being the only person to apply for the position. His job is to do rewrites of negative sounding articles to turn them positive, and also to put out the daily astrology section.
Kemp makes friends with Sala (Michael Rispoli), the Star’s seasoned photographer. When he mistakes his hotel’s mini bar to be entirely free, Lotterman refuses to continue to pay for Kemp’s hotel room so he moves in with Sala. There he meets a part-time tenant, the perpetually drunk and hygienically challenged Moburg (Giovanni Ribisi). Moburg supposedly also works for the San Juan Star (the religious and quasi-political section, I believe) but only makes nightly appearances.
Sanderson (Aaron Eckhart), a remarkably wealthy real estate mogul, meets with Kemp and likes him enough to hire him. He wants to put Kemp to work writing up nice ways to express why people should buy into Sanderson’s fraudulent island real estate. He even makes Kemp sign a confidentiality agreement. Sanderson’s girlfriend is the elegant and impossibly beautiful Chenault (Amber Heard); a blonde bombshell who looks the part of a late 1950s early 1960s model. Chenault likes Kemp and Kemp is smitten with her. He believes he’s found the love of his life, but Sala asks him, “Are you sure that you’re not confusing love for lust?”
The cast of quirky characters has now been placed on the game board.
Having announced all of the major players in the story, one would wonder what their actual relations are to one another, aside from journalistic work that never gets done and real estate fraud that never takes off. The truth is that the film takes a subjective point of view, following Kemp everywhere that he goes, from one exotic location to the next. The characters become personalities who are not quite caricatures. The way that the screenwriter strips their characteristics and turns them, simply, into personalities is one thing that I liked about the film.
There isn’t an actual, coherent plot that develops throughout the film and the narrative, although belonging entirely to Kemp, simply drifts everywhere. Kemp is completely lost in an island paradise that is equally fascinating and terrifying. He travels here and there, never gets any work done because he’s constantly interrupted and eventually does nothing that’s of any importance, and nothing that takes off ever lands properly. That’s because Kemp is a stranger who prefers to keep away from what or who he doesn’t know. When he tries to quit drinking at one point, Lotterman points out, “This is Puerto Rico. You’ll notice it’s impossible to not drink here. There’s nothing else to do.”
Another aspect of the film that I really enjoyed is the quirkiness of the locals and the strange situations that Kemp gets into. In this film, we see slow motion cock fights; a hermaphrodite witchdoctor; a funny sequence in which Kemp and Sala try LSD for the first time; a funny little car that only has a back seat; and a somewhat hilarious and creepy nighttime car chase that results in a cop’s head catching fire. We also learn from Moburg that 470 proof alcohol is a real thing.
This film is shot digitally with intentional low lighting and replaces gloss with grit. There are specks of digital grain seen throughout the entirety of the film and we feel like we’re on the island with Kemp in 1960.
Lastly, the greatest aspect of the film is the performances. Depp portrays a young Hunter S. Thompson (a/k/a Paul Kemp), who wrote the semi-autobiographical novel on which this film is based in the late 1950s, rather well, just as he portrayed an older version of Thompson in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998). However, The Rum Diary is a superior film because it begins before the beginning; we witness the alcohol before the drugs. Fear and Loathing introduced a thousand quirky characters, all entirely inconsequential, and was a gigantic, doped out mess.
The film’s writer and director is Bruce Robinson, whose first film was Withnail & I (1987), a sometimes hilarious and melancholy film that starred Richard E. Grant and Paul McGann as out of work, semi-homeless thespians and terrible alcoholics. It’s dark, gritty, poignant, and has become a sort of classic. That film’s feeling of self destruction is slightly present in The Rum Diary but to a much lesser extent because the main locale is a tropical paradise and because Kemp isn’t self destructive, although he will be later. The everyday oddities, however that Kemp and we witness for 120 minutes is what makes this a fun, strange, and soothing film to watch.
It’s not quite a drama, it’s not quite a comedy, and it’s not much of a semi-autobiographical account of one of the most famous American journalists; only in its conclusion do we see the “gonzo journalist” first smirk into life. But it’s an intriguing, lax, fun bit of time-killing that doesn’t entirely disappoint when one decided to shut out the real world for a couple of hours.