By Adele MacGregor
The Rum Diary, starring Johnny Depp as protagonist Paul Kemp, follows the booze fuelled journey of a newspaper journalist making a new start on the Caribbean Island of Puerto Rico in the 1960s. Directed by Bruce Robinson, the film is adapted from the novel by the eccentric and brilliant Hunter S. Thompson, who also penned the cult classic Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.
The film begins inside the destroyed hotel room of journalist Paul Kemp, who is about to begin work at a failing newspaper, The San Juan Star, among alcoholics and no-hopes. Kemp quickly befriends the newspaper’s photographer, Sala (Michale Rispoli), with whom he later becomes roommates in a dismal and dingy apartment along with a crazy drunkard by the name of Moburg and his collection of Nazi paraphernalia.
Within days of his arrival in Puerto Rico, Kemp is approached by corrupt businessman Sanderson (Aaron Eckhart), who wishes to assign the young journalist as a spin doctor to aid a collection of wealthy and heartless Americans in transforming a paradise island into a capitalist metropolis, including vast roads and monstrous hotels. Although Kemp is initially drawn to the money and fast cars that come with the deal, he soon begins to unearth the harsh truth of life in Puerto Rico; overweight white Americans (“beasts of obesity…the great whites”), casinos, hotels, bowling alleys and ignorance contrasting with the desperate poverty of the natives. This essence is captured when Sala enquires about the allegedly remote island; “Nobody lives here?”, which is returned with a chortled; “Nobody who’s stayin”, in one small segment summarizing greedy white capitalist America; fat men with fatter cigars, no conscience and bulging wallets. Thompson’s cynical view of Eisenhower era America bleeds into the script and is evoked well by Depp’s performance.
The Rum Diary is blessed with superb cinematography and a reasonably witty script, which appears well suited to Depp. However, although the film is beautifully shot, contrasting well with the gritty content, it includes a particularly bizarre drug scene which wavers dangerously on the verge of William S. Burroughs territory. Depp provides a good performance as the undoubtedly talented actor he is, but sadly Kemp’s character often drifts towards the demeanour of Jack Sparrow, with hints of Willy Wonka’s madness, which may leave one questioning the range of Depp’s talent.
The female lead, Chaneult (played by Amber Heard), at first appears as a Bond-esque seductress; all pout and hair flicking with a cleavage worthy of the Victoria Secret catwalk, stealing the heart of Paul Kemp from the moment they meet. Yet Chanault quickly becomes strangely irrelevant to the entire plot, despite apparently causing the end of the deal between Kemp and Sanderson. For most of the film, she is Sanderson’s girlfriend and for the rest of it she is cared for by Kemp, apparently too weak to function on her own merits, if indeed the character has any.
The Rum Diary was slated in The Sunday Times by Cosmo Landesman, and although the film has its moments, Landesman hits upon on a great point; someone should have told Robinson that the final half-hour of the film was unnecessary and tedious. The film has a promising start and succeeds at maintaining a reasonable pace, but then proceeds to drag its weary feet through unnecessary script developments, before finally coming to a shuffling stop as Kemp sails off into the sunset on a stolen boat.
5 OUT OF 10