The Rum Diary is a strange brew, and not because it’s based on a book by gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson. It tries to be a mixed drink, blending over-the-top humor with social commentary. It should have been shaken and stirred a whole lot more.
Johnny Depp plays a fictionalized version of Thompson, a journalist by the name of Kemp who is hired by an English-language newspaper in Puerto Rico in 1960. Kemp is a failed novelist who decides to try his hand at writing non-fiction. After going on a bender his first day in the country, he makes his way to the paper – and through a riotous demonstration to the front door. His new boss, Lotterman (Richard Jenkins) assigns him to writing horoscopes. Kemp comes under the tutelage of Sala (Michael Rispoli), the paper’s photographer and a long-time resident of the island.
Kemp also meets Sanderson (Aaron Eckhart), a former newspaperman who has moved into being a PR person and enabler for those who wish to exploit the island. Kemp also finds himself drawn to Sanderson’s girlfriend Chenault (Amber Heard). They meet cute early in the film when an intoxicated Kemp takes a paddle boat out from the beach at his hotel at night and comes across Chenault skinny-dipping.
Sanderson brings Kemp in on a hotel/condo development that he’s helping put together, thinking Kemp can write stories to smooth the way for the project. Kemp, though, sees it for what it is – more exploitation of the country by those who have the power and money, while the regular Puerto Ricans will receive no benefits beyond low-paying jobs serving the elite.
Depp’s performance is eminently watchable, but he’s hamstrung by the script. He had channeled Thompson before, in Terry Gilliam’s wild Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. That movie was well-received, but it was not a financial success – a common fate with Gilliam’s work. The Rum Diary is like Fear and Loathing Lite, (and by its early box office it’s likely it will do worse than Fear and Loathing). The one character who approaches that wildness is Moberg (Giovanni Ribisi), a booze and drug-addled writer who enjoys listening to recordings of Adolph Hitler’s speeches. In the end, though, he’s simply repulsive.
Michael Rispoli is fine as Sala, embracing the go-along-to-get-along attitude of almost everyone working at the paper. Aaron Eckhart has a patent on oily charm, which he spreads freely. Amber Heard’s Chenault should have had a Marilyn Monroe feel to it, but what we get is Marilyn at the end of her career, sapped of energy. As a blond bombshell, she’s a dud. It hasn’t been a good month for Ms. Heard, since her television show The Playboy Club was quickly canceled.
The movie looks wonderful, capturing the visuals of 1960’s Puerto Rico beautifully. That’s a credit to the director, Bruce Robinson. However, Robinson also wrote the script, and that is where the problem of the movie lies.
Everything is told from the Anglo point of view. Even Depp’s outrage at the exploitation of the island is from an outsider. This was at a time of activism in Puerto Rico where it was seeking independence from the United States. The US had taken the island from Spain during the 1898 Spanish-American War, and it remains to this day a piece of the US without any true representation in the government. Only ten years before the movie’s setting, two Puerto Rican nationalists tried to assassinate President Harry Truman by shooting their way into Blair House, where he was staying while the White House was undergoing extensive renovations. The movie, though, doesn’t give the viewer any understanding of the islander’s experience. When encountered, their attitude is universal anger, yet there’s no gateway for the audience to understand their rage.
For contrast, look at Phillip Noyce’s 2002 film The Quiet American. It was set at about the same time, though in Vietnam, and based on a book written contemporary to that time as well. Yet it gave the audience an understanding of the resentment against colonialism. With The Rum Diary, there’s a constant separation between the Anglos and the Spanish, a divide that’s never bridged.
The film has a couple weirdly funny scenes, but in the end it doesn’t answer one central question – why did the studio bother making this movie?