Rum Diary, The (United States, 2011)

October 27, 2011
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Rum Diary, The Poster

There are times when the story behind the making of a film is more interesting than the finished product. This is one of those occasions. The Rum Diary was written by Hunter S. Thompson in the 1960s but was not published until 1998, after actor Johnny Depp, who had befriended Thompson while prepping for Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, urged the Gonzo journalist to make it public. Depp has been connected to potential film versions for more than ten years. Two failed attempts (one which was to have starred Depp and the other which was to have featured Benicio Del Toro) preceded the one that made it in front of the cameras. Depp's hand-picked director for this take was Bruce Robinson (who hasn't made anything since 1992's Jennifer Eight), whose own problems with alcohol may have rivaled those of Thompson. Seemingly against all odds, filming wrapped, but finding a distributor became an issue, even with Depp starring. FilmDistrict, a relatively new player in the movie game, picked it up, but it's difficult to determine who the audience is expected to be. Does Thompson still have enough devotees, decades after being at his pinnacle and six years after his suicide, to prevent The Rum Diary from becoming a cash sinkhole?

There's a lot wrong with The Rum Diary and not a lot right. Most of the problems relate to the source material and the fuzzy, hazy nature of the narrative. From a cinematic perspective, it's an impressive production with an evocative re-creation of 1960 Puerto Rico. Depp is suave and charismatic (although there's a little too much Captain Jack Sparrow, without the grunge, in the portrayal). Aaron Eckhart, one of the few working actors who can convincingly wear a white hat or a black one, is in full asshole mode. And Amber Heard is as sexy as a woman can be, especially during a nightclub dance. The Rum Diary fails because of the screenplay, and the screenplay stumbles because it shows too much reverence to its source material. One positive quality ascribable to the movie is that it's more coherent than Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, although it is also more conventional.

The Rum Diary fails to offer a full helping of anything. The contrived romance is half-presented. The comedy is hit-and-miss. The main character's arc, which transforms him from a drunken libertarian to a crusader for the undertrodden, is half-described. The conflict between the protagonist and antagonist is left unresolved. In fact, the entire story has an unfinished, half-baked sensibility. An attempt to provide a sense of closure via an end-of-the-movie caption is unsatisfying. It's nice to know that everything turns out okay, but wouldn't it have been better to show it, if only in a montage?

Depp plays journalist Paul Kemp, loosely based on Thompson (or at least Thompson as he saw himself), who applies for a job at the San Juan Star and gets it because he's the only applicant. When asked about his sobriety by his new editor, Lotterman (Richard Jenkins), he claims to be operating at the high end of the social drinking scale, despite wearing sunglasses to conceal a hangover. While working at the Star, Paul befriends photographer Sala (Michael Rispoli), who makes cash on the side by fighting cocks, and ex-journalist Moburg (Giovanni Ribisi), whose mind has been fried by too much booze and drugs. His writing skills are sought after by land developer Sanderson (Aaron Eckhart), who wants Paul to scribe favorable stories in the paper about a deal he's putting together. Paul is seduced by Sanderson's genial demeanor and free handouts, but it's his mistress, Chenault (Amber Heard), who makes the prospect of getting into Sanderson's inner circle enticing. Unfortunately, once there, Paul learns what kind of man he's dealing with.

One can respect Depp's loyalty to his dead friend's legacy to get this movie on the screen and to lend his not inconsiderable talents to the proceedings, but the result is unremarkable. The Rum Diary is presented as if through an alcoholic haze, with plot strands spreading without root or direction. Even as a character study of Paul and an exploration of how he finds his "voice" as a writer and sets out to defend the common man against "The Bastards," The Rum Diary lacks cohesiveness and conviction. Paul's transformation is not credible; it happens as if by magic. And, at two hours, the film overstays its welcome. Nothing and no one in The Rum Diary is compelling or endearing enough to make us want to stick with it for that long.

According to reports, director Robinson fell off the wagon while making the movie (although returned to sobriety after it was finished). Such a sacrifice deserves a better end product. This one is just a pretty-looking mess.

Rum Diary, The (United States, 2011)

Run Time: 2:00
U.S. Release Date: 2011-10-28
MPAA Rating: "R" (Profanity, Sexual Content, Nudity, Drugs)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1