Journalism can lead to many things. For some, it’s money. Some venture into the worlds of crime and government. Others tackle politics and entertainment (well, maybe that was already covered by crime and government). For Paul Kemp, journalism is the ticket to beaches, women, big business and copious amounts of alcohol.
Set in 1960, The Rum Diary follows Kemp (Johnny Depp), a journalist who takes a job at a failing newspaper in Puerto Rico. Hounded by an extremely strong love of alcohol, Kemp finds himself drawn into the absurdities of expatriate life and the schemes of Sanderson (Aaron Eckhart), a businessman working on shady plans. To make matters worse, Sanderson’s girlfriend Chenault (Amber Heard) has an eye on Kemp.
The Rum Diary runs on the plot of Hunter S. Thompson’s novel, reflecting his early period as a journalist, before the fear and loathing set in. But don’t go in expecting a madcap bit of surrealism. This isn’t Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. It’s a drunken exploration of the human condition, not a mescaline and LSD-fueled spin in the desert. It’s Thompson before he went completely Gonzo. Bruce Robinson, who adapted and directed the movie, expertly brings this world to life.
Robinson, the director of the classic tragic comedy Withnail & I, itself an alcohol-heavy character drama, imbues The Rum Diary with a seedy undertone. The film is a descent into human greed, under the veneer of glamor and tropical paradise, and every scene captures that duality, and Kemp’s growing unease at it all. The Americans, falling under the lead of Sanderson, aim to extort Puerto Rico for all the money they can squeeze out, all while living a swanky, 1960s lifestyle.
Depp is excellent as Kemp. Far less paranoid and neurotic than his Fear and Loathing portrayal of a Thompson stand-in, Depp brings an undertone of innocence and idealism to his character — ultimately challenged by the world around him — that is revealed in small touches throughout the film.
Whether dispensing wisdom through rum-induced voiceovers or trying to get his editor to accept more investigative work, Kemp is continuously engaging and philosophical, proving a steady keel for the film’s direction.
His coworkers at the newspaper more than make up for Depp’s relative sanity. Michael Rispoli plays Sala, a burnt-out, drunk photographer, equally jaded in his own den of iniquity. Richard Jenkins brings his usual charm and cynicism to the paper’s editor, struggling to appease the tourists and keep his drunken reporters in line.
But the real surprise among the supporting cast is Moburg (Giovanni Ribisi), a truly brain-fried reporter who spends his time listening to Hitler recordings and trying to create a 470-proof rum. As a comrade to Kemp, Ribisi’s journalist is unpredictable and never staid.
The Rum Diary, as with Thompson’s novel, critiques the situations it explores. Puerto Rico is a slum, with obese American tourists enjoying specialized areas while the businessmen profit. Sanderson and his cohorts are charming and enjoy their own paradise, but it’s clear they do not, and will never, fit in with the local population. Even Kemp’s lifestyle is subject to criticism, as he and Sala end up in worse situations as a result of their heavy drinking. The film lives off the duality of the island, and how it affects its residents.
Most surprising is how jaded the film is. Kemp and the audience enter the movie with an idealistic dream of the island and journalism, only to be undermined by human nature. Like his previous filmography, Robinson does an excellent job of balancing the story’s depressive elements with the funny, but the overall character arc for Kemp, despite its subdued nature, is still brutal.
The latest in adaptations of Thompson’s novels, the film is a strong, dour exploration into idealism and vice. Robinson and Depp bring out a sharp critique of greed and arrogance, all through the prism of sandy beaches and beautiful landscapes. It’s not a crazy movie — as the Thompson link would suggest — but it doesn’t need to be. The story and acting are compelling enough.
The Rum Diary is an alcohol-fueled tailspin toward a moment of cynical clarity. And it’s a brilliant ride. Thompson would be proud.