The Rum Diary

The Rum Diary is based on a novel by Hunter S. Thompson. He wrote the book in his early 20’s, tried to sell it and then put it away for forty years until he and Johnny Depp found it while going through Thompson’s old papers. The story is set in Puerto Rico in the late 50’s, a time when the island hosted a multitude of Americans there for the weather, business opportunities or the rum.
Paul Kemp, Thompson’s stand-in and played by Johnny Depp takes a job writing for the San Juan daily paper. He goes to such a backwater because he’s tired of the grind in New York. He falls in with the community of Americans, including photographer Bob Sala, played by Michael Rispoli, fellow reporter Moburg, played by Giovanni Ribisi, Sanderson, played by Aaron Eckhart, an ambitious businessman who’s willing to break the rules in order to get ahead, and his beautiful fiancé Chenault, played by Amber Heard. Sanderson has grand ideas to turn Puerto Rico into a capitalist paradise, exploiting the native population in the process. He tries to enlist Paul to write favorably about the scheme, which provides the movie with its central dilemma.
This movie has all the elements of a Hunter S. Thompson narrative: the strange drugs, sudden senseless violence and a cynical world view. It is also Thompson’s story about finding his voice as an author, deciding to take the rage he felt and putting it on the page and Depp does a good job of showing you a passionate writer through the haze of drugs and alcohol. Two other features have been made from Thompson’s work, Where the Buffalo Roams and Terry Gilliam’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Buffalo is underrated and while Fear and Loathing has its passionate fanbase, I was a little disappointed in it. Without Thompson’s brutally apt descriptions and knack for finding just the right word, all that debauchery gets tedious. The Rum Diary falls right in with these. It has a clearly defined plot which makes the focus tighter and yet it doesn’t quite come up to the mark. Hunter S. Thompson was one of the best wordsmiths in the history of the language. It may be that by trying to translate him to the screen too much of what is best about him is lost.
In truth this has been a tough review to write. The movie is OK but not great. I neither hate it nor love it. I suppose that lack of passion is a criticism in and of itself. Johnny Depp is fine, essentially reprising his role as the good doctor. And the rest of the cast is good as well, especially Michael Rispoli as Bob Sala, who serves as a guide into the more disreputable areas of the island. Giovanni Ribisi is great as Moberg the only half coherent crime reporter.
The film could have been shorter and some of the drug scenes served no purpose. But that’s the only criticism I can really articulate. The Rum Diary is merely OK.


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October 2011
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