***originally written 28 November 2011***
I apologise in advance that this review is for the most part built as a comparison to two other larger cultural icons. The Rum Diary arrives laden with a curious amount of so-called ‘counter-culture’ expectation thanks to the creative minds behind it. Based on the formative writings of the same name by revered anarchic journalist Hunter S Thompson (a man with, to say the least, no small cult following), it has been brought to the screen by Bruce Robinson, the frazzled mind behind 80s cult classic Withnail & I. There is a sense then, even before the film has begun, that The Rum Diary already has a set of boxes to tick; that if this is anything less than a perfect collision of Withnail and Fear & Loathing In Las Vegas that student Blu-ray collections across the country are soon to be short-changed. All of which is a little unfair to this picture, because The Rum Diary really isn’t about that. Not really…
The ‘story’ (for want of a better word) pre-dates both Withnail and Fear & Loathing. Its 1960, and Hunter Thompson – here basically re-named Paul Kemp – arrives in Puerto Rico as a journalist for hire following an unsuccessful attempt at making it as a novelist. He finds himself in a hive of unrest, born in no small part out of a nasty class-divide; there’re the impoverished locals and then there are the fatted Americans who have arrived to make-good and plunder the land for its exotic riches.
Kemp’s a little green to it all. An idealist already acquainted with alcoholism and cynicism, but not yet controlled and contorted by either. He is portrayed of course by Johnny Depp, who is largely responsible for this picture even existing, and Depp sensibly tones down some of the ‘comic drunk’ routine that has become an all-too-frequent mainstay of his repertoire.
Kemp, quickly disenfranchised by his spineless editor’s protests against his negative reporting, is drawn toward local business tycoon Sanderson (Aaron Eckhart), or more accurately, to his alluring girlfriend – and sometime mermaid – Chenault (Amber Heard, who is fine if wooden, in a we-couldn’t-get-Scarlett-Johansson kind of way). Sanderson, either blind-to or in complete denial of Kemp’s romance with both alcohol and his girlfriend, sets him up in Puerto Rico, lending him money, giving him a car, and freeing him from bail after a night disturbing the peace (one of the film’s highlights). Kemp quickly finds himself uncomfortably indebted to Sanderson, who then unveils his plans for pushing through a deal to secure a great amount of real estate for a hotel development plan. This guy literally wants to pave paradise to put up a parking lot.
Whilst Kemp and his partner-in-crime/washed-out tour-guide Sala (Michael Rispoli) have their share of boozy scrapes, the only genuine grotesque in this light comedy is Giovanni Ribisi’s ramshackle Moberg; a filthy perma-fucked Nazi who provides a great deal of physical comedy, yet also feels slightly out of step with everyone else, as though he’s stumbled in from a much darker movie. He’s a great creation born out of extremes, but generally The Rum Diary is more comfortable with a milder strain of comedy born out of double-entendres, or one particularly funny sequence involving a car with no front seat.
As such The Rum Diary feels like a prequel of sorts. A watered-down version of the excesses lying in wait. Robinson paints Puerto Rico in 1960 romantically. A warm, exotic destination where you could go and have fun. Cut loose a little and maybe even get into some danger. Withnail’s summer vacation. Robinson largely avoids repeating his previous success. Though it has it’s moments for sure, The Rum Diary contains a little less barking-mad carnage than you might expect. As such this is a movie that would feel more at home in a Sunday afternoon double bill with the likes of Dr No or Vicky Cristina Barcelona. Your nan would probably like it.
The ending may be a let-down for some, but it feels right. Honest. Unlike some of the other elements. Depp and Heard don’t particularly spark off of each other, for instance. Whilst Rispoli too often feels like he’s there to explain the context for the audience.
Ultimately you can’t help feeling that Kemp/Thompson merely bumped up against a number of problems and issues in Puerto Rico, resolving or exposing none of them. But then this is a story of a fledgling. A man soon to find his voice and become one of the great absurdist writer’s of a generation. A man just beginning to get angry.
Will The Rum Diary become as iconic as its peers? No. But then you also get the feeling that was never the intention anyway. Recommended viewing, and certainly a more balanced movie than the Fear & Loathing adaptation, but unlikely to become the kind of classic some might be after. Still, matching Kemp drink-for-drink is going to get at least a few students pretty nailed.