“The Rum Diary” is quite similar to the Terry Gilliam film “Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas” when you get down to it. Other than the obvious similarity that Johnny Depp headlines in both movies, they are also big screen adaptations of two separate literary works written by the late great Hunter S. Thompson, the man who set the idea of Gonzo journalism into motion. The narratives of the two are not as direct as most stories, but instead play out as a collection of events and episodes that unfold in a cluttered, stream-of-consciousness kind of way. Unfortunately for “The Rum Diary,” it does not have the imaginative flair, the unique direction of Gilliam, the social satire or the manic energy to compensate for its clunky storytelling.
I regret to say that I am not too familiar with Hunter S. Thompson and I have not read either of the two books, but I hear that they are written in this fashion. For all I know, both works have been adapted into faithful film translations. However, the problem with this is not a matter of translation, nor is it because it simply cannot compare to the greatness of Gilliam’s surreal comedy from 1998. I believe instead the thing that hurts “The Rum Diary” the most is that it weaves in and out of stories regularly, not knowing which direction it is heading in or even where its destination lies.
I know the cast and crew mean well and they all have a tremendous amount of respect for the man behind the novel. In fact, Thompson, who committed suicide in 2005 at the age of 67, gets his own pre-credit commemoration, as well he should. But for a movie like this, something of a love letter to a man who was an enormously influential voice in his field of work, to not pique the interest of an unacquainted viewer like myself and not persuade me to dig deeper into what the guy was all about, hasn’t the film already fallen short in what it wants to accomplish?
Set a decade before “Fear and Loathing” and all that hallucinogenic drug consumption took place in LA, the film opens up in San Juan, Puerto Rico during the year 1960. Paul Kemp (Johnny Depp, not to be confused with Raoul Duke, his character in “Fear,” all of which are extensions of Thompson himself) is a failed author from New York who has not yet tapped into his own creative voice in his writing. In spite of these things, he remains determined in securing a writing gig at the San Juan Star, the English-language daily newspaper of the crazy city.
Kemp arrives at the offices in the afternoon, trying desperately (though unsuccessfully) to hide his bloodshot hangover eyes behind a pair of sunglasses as he applies for the job. Fortunately, our hero is rewarded the position by default; he is the only one who applied. Though this is not without first consulting with the toupee-donning editor Edward J. Lotterman (Richard Jenkins). Not having that much of a writing staff in the first place, Lotterman is wary that he’ll be yet another employee with drinking problems, little commitment and no motivation.
When he asks Paul to describe how much he typically drinks, he responds that he lies somewhere on “the upper end of social.” However, this film is called “The Rum Diary,” so is it a big surprise when Kemp gets in big trouble for costing the company tons of extra money on his hotel bill to accommodate his primal affinity for alcoholic beverages? I’m afraid not.
There is a myriad of colorful secondary characters, including Moberg (Giovanni Ribisi), a stone-cold booze drinker who, despite being laid off from the dailies, still shows up on a day-to-day basis, and Sala (Michael Rispoli), the newspaper photographer whom Kemp stays with after losing his hotel privileges for his alcoholic gaffe mentioned above. Sala’s place is a run-down apartment place whose most posh luxury is that his neighbor has a television set viewable from across windows…and Sala has binoculars!
One of Paul’s first stories has to do with reporting the exploits of the wealthy real estate businessman Sanderson (Aaron Eckhart), whose residence near the shoreline just reeks of opulence, from the sleek, elaborate interior designs to his pet tortoise which has its shell BeDazzled with shiny gems of all varieties. Sanderson shows more of his corrupt nature with each new meeting, but Paul instead has his eyes focused on the man’s fiancée Chenault (Amber Heard), a sexy thrill-seeker if ever there was one. He first encounters her skinny-dipping at night while Sanderson delivers a speech inside the home. Paul initially mistakes her for a mermaid, but for how quickly she seduces him, you would think she is one of the sirens straight out of The Odyssey.
From there, the hero and everyone around him get into all kinds of misadventures, some funny and some heartbreakingly monotonous. One of my favorite gags has to do with Sala’s piece of crap car, which is about as reliable as the van in “Little Miss Sunshine.” However, the film drags quite often. The interrelated stories are jumbled up to a fault and I wasn’t quite sure which ones held more significance over others. In any case, I preferred the story arc between Paul and Chenault mostly for Depp and Heard’s chemistry, but still felt if only a little shortchanged when it was over with. “The Rum Diary” is perhaps a little too uneven for me to fully appreciate.