Not Much Story to Tell in The Rum Diary
- Christian Hamaker Contributing Film and Culture Writer
- 2011 28 Oct
DVD Release Date: February 14, 2012
Theatrical Release Date: October 28, 2011
Rating: R (for language, brief drug use and sexuality)
Run Time: 120 min.
Director: Bruce Robinson
Actors: Johnny Depp, Giovanni Robisi, Michael Rispoli, Richard Jenkins, Aaron Eckhart, Amber Heard
There are movies that entertain and demand little of their audience. There are movies that reward careful study, and thoughtful consideration. There are stories that are propulsive, taking viewers on a ride that leaves them asking questions about the story later after further reflection. Then there are films that move slowly, inviting close engagement with the unfolding story every step along the way.
The Rum Diary falls into another category. It moves, but not quickly, and while it hints at deeper themes of political and corporate corruption, it never invites deeper analysis of its story. Its protagonist is a writer, but the story is less about him than what happens around him. None of it is particularly interesting or revelatory. When it’s over, one can’t help but wonder who the intended audience is, and why the project was made.
One answer to the latter question isn’t too hard to ascertain, although it raises questions of its own: Johnny Depp (Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides), who stars in the film as Paul Kemp, is a fan of the late writer Hunter S. Thompson. Depp found the Rum Diary manuscript in a drawer in Thompson’s home in the late 1990s, around the time he was playing Thompson in director Terry Gilliam’s adaptation of the writer’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. He encouraged Thompson to publish the dusty novel, which the author began writing in the early 1960s, and moved forward with a film version directed by Bruce Robinson, whose previous film (Jennifer Eight) came out in 1992.
In Rum Diary, Kemp travels to Puerto Rico to take a job with the island’s newspaper and find his “voice” as a writer. A cynical photographer, Sala (Michael Rispoli, The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3), warns the newbie that he was the only applicant for the position. Their boss, Lotterman (Richard Jenkins, Friends with Benefits), is struggling to keep the operation afloat and has little time to hear about Kemp’s muckraking ambitions. He’s much more interested in appeasing the paper’s financial backers and advertisers. One island visitor looking for positive press is Sanderson (Aaron Eckhart, Battle: Los Angeles), an American entrepreneur who wants to convert a nearby island used for military drills into a resort. His beautiful girlfriend. Chenault (Amber Heard, Drive Angry), provides the hook Sanderson needs to reel in Kemp and get the newspaper on his side.
There’s not much mystery to The Rum Diary. The locale is seedy, as are many of the characters, and nothing much transpires over the film’s two-hour running time. Depp tries to bring the cool, but he often looks more sleepy than charismatic or compelling—similar to his turn in last year’s The Tourist. That the character is drunk through much of Rum Diary doesn’t help make the protagonist more engaging.
Much more lively are Rispoli and, especially, Giovanni Robisi (Avatar) as the burned-out Moburg, Kemp’s sometimes-there roommate during his stay in Puerto Rico. A religion reporter, Moburg rasps about doctrines with which he disagrees but mainly serves as a warning of where Kemp and the other hard-drinking newspapermen might be headed. Anytime Robisi is on screen, the possibility of something unexpected in the narrative becomes palpable, only to fade again when the character disappears.
What did Depp see in the novel that so many publishers had passed on? The actor’s attraction to the project remains mysterious, but he gave Robinson great leeway to take the source material and run with it, indicating, perhaps, that the cinematic potential of the material wasn’t entirely apparent on the page. Robinson claims to have altered the book extensively, leaving just two lines of dialogue directly from the novel.
All of the changes, however, haven’t resulted in a product worth seeing. The Rum Diary is a booze-filled tribute to a drunk writer’s sense of his own superiority. Why should we care?
The Rum Diary reportedly has been on the shelf for a few years while the distributor tried to figure out a way to sell the film to audiences used to seeing Depp in less challenging fare. The problem with this film is that it teaches us nothing and shows us little that we haven’t seen before. It’s a vanity project for its star—a tribute to the writer who inspired the actor. But it’s not something that will win Depp or Thompson new fans. On the contrary, it’s more likely to ward off people from future projects associated with either.
- Language/Profanity: Lord’s name taken in vain; “f”-word; “ba-tard”; “filthy whore”; “p-ss.”
- Alcohol/Smoking/Drugs: Drinking throughout; some smoking and drug use; drinking and driving.
- Sex/Nudity: Kemp gets out of bed in his boxers; a man is said to have been “raped to death”; a woman skinny dips, but we see only her shoulders and head above the water; a couple has sex in the sea; bare-chested men; in jail, a man makes a kissing gesture at Kemp; men riding in a car appear to be having sex with each other; a married woman grabs a man’s leg; sensual dancing; a man asks another man to look at his penis; reference to venereal disease; Chenault comes to Kemp in the shower, kisses him; they move to the bed, kissing, with Kemp wrapped in a towel below the waist.
- Violence/Crime: Protestors attack a car; police beat protestors; cock fighting; vomiting.
Religion: Writers discuss horoscope page in the local paper; Moburg asks, “If the Bible is God’s book, why didn’t he give it to everyone?”; a rant about communism and the kingdom of Satan; a hallucinating man tells another man that his tongue belongs to Satan; a man wonders why humans claim there is a god, but live as though there’s not one; a man says it’s as though God, in a fit of disgust, has decided to wipe out humanity; a man seeks out a witch doctor and asks for an animal to be blessed.
Questions? Comments? Contact the writer at firstname.lastname@example.org.