Sprung from the bizarre mind of Hunter S. Thompson, The Rum Diary tells the story of a journalist arriving at a Puerto Rican newspaper in the 1960s in search of journalistic integrity and plenty of rum. Paul Kemp, played by Johnny Depp, is based on the Thompson of his early years, and the novelist’s unmistakable style seeps into every scene of the film. Encountering real-estate sharks, a lousy editor, boozy colleagues and a red-lipped beauty, Kemp finds the American Dream perpetuated at the expense of those who were not invited in. It takes several rum-related adventures and a burst of the bubble to kick Kemp and the movie into action, sending him on a mission to save the newspaper and give the villains what they deserve.
Unfortunately for Johnny Depp and director/screenwriter Bruce Robinson’s project the storyline is too weak to really get under your skin. Kemp’s quest for true journalism is mostly overshadowed by the boozing, smoking and mayhem of Puerto Rico’s nights, and the viewer is not engaged until Depp’s character is given more depth towards the end of the film. The American Dream, the paradise that can never truly be found, is a vivid and entertaining backdrop: the perfect illusion created by the likes of Aaron Eckhart, playing a real-estate mogul out to profit from Puerto Rico’s treasures, and his stunning girlfriend Chenault (played by Amber Heard) both draws Kemp in and repulses him, giving his character an enigmatic edge and the film a powerful contrast to crumbling houses and filthy streets. However for the most part, the plot lacks a purpose and direction that sucks the audience in.
Depp is compelling and entertaining, and it is his performance that captivates the audience albeit the film’s flaws. Kemp, despite numerous têt à têts with his editor Lotterman (played by Richard Jenkins) over his gloomy but provocative articles on Puerto Rico’s starving childen, seems utterly lost as to where he belongs. And Depp, taking elements of his peculiar and eccentric Captain Jack Sparrow, effectively portrays a man on a downward spiral, struggling to find a balance. Yet the role lacks a depth and purpose the viewer can relate to, and Kemp’s search for redemption and journalistic integrity comes a little too late. Other characters, such as the crazed ex-journalist Moberg whose self-distilled liquor killed off too many brain cells (played brilliantly by Giovanni Ribisi), are a far-fetched creation of Thompson’s imagination that only adds to the surreal nature of the film.
What was clear from Johnny Depp and Bruce Robinson’s visit to the Oxford Union last weekend was their dedication to this project as an homage to their hero and friend Hunter S. Thompson, who committed suicide in 2005. Depp, who had planned to make this film with Thompson for years, clearly took this devotion and passion to his role. The flamboyant and fast-paced cinematography, oddball characters, powerful score and peculiar side stories of witch doctors and cockfights create a parallel universe in which the line between dream and reality is blurred. Judging from Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Thompson and Depp’s previous collaboration, this is exactly what Thompson would have wanted, and how he himself viewed his semi-fictionalised past.