The Rum Diary Review: Drunken Vignettes under the Puerto Rican Sun

The Rum Diary, directed and written by Bruce Robinson and based off of the novel by Hunter S. Thompson, is a perfect movie for people who love the cultural capsules of the early 1960s. These include themes like communistic fear, capitalist greed, foreign slices of Americana, and oh yeah, lots of booze. The title is thus appropriately named and justified, and is also the drink of choice for the San Juan population. The guzzling consumption and nefarious bar tabs make even Mad Men look tame. Each man’s prerogatives get subsidized with flaming cigars, cigarettes, and the occasional narcotic to balance and partly explain that these characteristics aren’t products of alcoholism, just “the high-end of social.”

Partaking in the spirits is Johnny Depp, who plays Thompson’s alter-ego Paul Kemp. This is his second time playing his character, the first in Terry Gilliam’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, and this time travels south to Puerto Rico. A struggling novelist looking to earn some cash flow, he begins work with the San Juan Star, an American-written tourist newspaper aimed at informing the imperialist culture. Though, informing is a term used loosely. Kemp, who struggles with hangovers, and consequentially bright lights, dons his sunglasses into the newsroom, assigned with remedial tasks, which include formulating daily horoscopes. His boss is a toupee-wearing, contemptuous editor named Lotterman (Richard Jenkins), who feeds the city and his dying paper company with frail slices of American values- his name nearly implying that travelers hit the slots.

There Kemp finds favor in the Star’s staff, including Bob Sala (Michael Rispoli), the paper photographer who is always in the mood to put down a cold one. He rents out his apartment for Kemp to stay, a fixer-upper of sorts that they must share with a more elusive staff reporter named Moburg (Giovanni Ribispi). He is the drunkest of the three, and finds newer ways to damage his body and also assemble fellow writers to rebel against Lotterman. The trio illegally distills potent alcohol thanks to some stolen materials by Moburg, and also infiltrate the cock-fighting market, supporting Salas’s fowl. Kemp meanwhile struggles to find inspiration, and struggles with portraying the Spanish country in a positive light.

By the time The Rum Diary gets its proverbially feet off the ground (the metaphor is intentional), alcohol of every shape and kind has been digested- and to the discordance of Aristotle- without any moderation. The only moderate things within the film are Paul’s political views, at least for most of the plot, until they get polarized after finding his ethical stance in life. Confusing and then straightening Kemp’s moral codes is real estate tycoon Hal Sanderson (Aaron Eckhart). Sanderson quickly swoons Kemp to work for him and use his journalistic skills to his advantage. Willing to listen, especially after sharing glances with Sanderson’s sleek girlfriend Chenault (Amber Heard), Kemp finds himself in the middle of a greedy scheme to stack hotels and residences onto an unused, serene mainland island. Hal entices Kemp with his luxurious residence, sailboat outings, and spins in his flashy convertible, tokens of lavish spending. “A cynic is a man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing,” Kemp says like a good writer, quoting Oscar Wilde, while referencing Hal and his partners’ illustrious goal for gold.

These proper business meetings get counteracted with drunken, nocturnal adventures with Salas, whose impromptu decisions spark the repetitive cycle of San Juan nightlife. They also curry favor with Chenault, who privately expresses to Kemp her dissatisfaction with Hal’s acquisitive nature. She seduces Kemp and adds more boiling tension between the imperceptible writer and straightened businessman. Yet director Robinson never takes the severity of the situation too far, inserting in place gifts of laughter and alcoholic splurges. The narrative thus flows unevenly, and becomes a diary of sorts, mismatched anecdotes tied together by Kemp’s attentive ear to the progressively piercing cry of social inequalities.

Aaron Eckhart and Amber Heard in "The Rum Diary"

This visibly evident aspect is later the core of Thompson’s (Kemp) exposing plight. Depp charismatically plays him with ingenuity- sloppy and intoxicated by night and well-groomed and dapper by day. He consumes more rum than his prolific sea captain Mr. Sparrow, and the allusion is intentional, their comedic mannerisms mimicking one another. Depp strings his stories together extensively, uniting us with the substantial learning curve of living in a new country, though his easy transition is due to his familiar on-screen charm, not any inventive self-immersion. Amber Heard sizzles as a sexy seductress to Paul, her free-spirited spontaneity pushing her past the clichéd pretty girl into someone a little more unpredictable.

Everything else is just plain fun and humorously entertaining, nothing too profound or contentious- which is ironic since Thompson’s ideals were certainly that.

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