Sony // 2011 // 120 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Appellate Judge James A. Stewart // February 2nd, 2012
"I was looking for some nuts. I tend to ignore alcohol -- when I can."
On the way to getting The Rum Diary published, Hunter S. Thompson got sidetracked for a while -- a long while: he wrote it in the '50s and it got published in the '90s. However, a historian found his misplaced novel, as we learn in a short subject, and it soon ended up in the hands of publishers and readers. It also made its way to Johnny Depp, a friend of Thompson's who thought it could be a movie someday. The Rum Diary got sidetracked for a while, too; it didn't hit screens until 2011, several years after Thompson's death.
Paul Kemp (Johnny Depp, The Tourist) arrives for a job interview at the San Juan Star, with no understanding of Spanish and a massive hangover. Kemp, an unpublished novelist, gets the job anyway, since he's the sole applicant. Soon he's writing the horoscopes and interviewing tourists from colder climates at the local bowling alleys.
Even with a cheap apartment and some strange colleagues, Kemp looks like he'll be able to settle in okay -- until he meets Chenault (Amber Heard, Zombieland), the beautiful girlfriend of developer Hal Sanderson (Aaron Eckhart, Thank You for Smoking). Sanderson wants Kemp in his circle, so much so that he's willing to post bond when Kemp and colleague, Sala (Michael Rispoli, Summer of Sam), get arrested after a wild fight.
The Rum Diary hits you on the head with contrasts almost immediately. It opens on the brilliant blue skies and seas of Puerto Rico, with a bright red plane flying against that beautiful backdrop, "Volare" playing as an enchanting background tune. Suddenly, viewers find themselves not in the romantic setting they were looking forward to, but in a dark, gloomy hotel room with an unkempt Johnny Depp, curtains closed and mini-fridge upended. Immediately, everyone knows there's a stranger in paradise, and he couldn't be any stranger.
You could look at The Rum Diary as a nostalgic, shallow movie about the hijinks of a drunken writer. There's plenty of material for it: trips to the cockfights, a battle with local toughs in which Paul Kemp's flammable alcoholic breath is a weapon, driving down stairs in a rundown car to avoid an angry cop, drinking water from a goldfish bowl, and nearly driving a pricy Chevy convertible into the drink. That's not even counting the obligatory drug hallucination sequence, which may have been kept to its mercifully short length by a lack of CGI budget. Nor is it counting the profanity that streams through the movie. Even that surface take on The Rum Diary could make for a diverting couple of hours in the hands of Depp.
As Kemp, Depp wanders through everything in a genial drunken haze, sunglasses perpetually hiding his usually bloodshot eyes. However, he plays it with just enough of a spark of awareness and intelligence to hint at more substance. The Rum Diary plays it the same way. There are some broad jabs, as when Kemp and Sala watch the Kennedy-Nixon debates, and Kemp is sure Richard M. Nixon will turn out bad, but the movie goes beyond the obvious. It turns out to be a rumination on the importance of journalism and its role in people's lives, something that's perhaps more a concern in the electronic environment of today than when Hunter S. Thompson first wrote The Rum Diary.
The movie proves as beautiful as that juxtaposed opening scene would suggest, with the cinematography contrasting the seedy world of Kemp and a rundown newspaper with the colorful brightness of Sanderson's stretch of private beach. Both milieus are somehow beautiful and enticing in this well-done little production, and the period music makes it all somehow romantic, just to help any messages or ponderings sneak up on you more stealthily.
If you wanted to see The Rum Diary but waited for the DVD, there is a reward for you. "The Rum Diary Back Story" gives viewers 45 minutes of Thompson as he revises the material and argues with Depp and other moviemakers about the film. It gives viewers a look at the last years of Thompson's life, as well as the writer's mind. It's also just plain entertaining, even if slightly long. A second short, "A Voice of Ink and Rage: Inside the Rum Diary," concerns itself more with the movie. You'll learn that everyone involved considers it a labor of love, and that it used real locations as much as humanly possible.
I haven't read The Rum Diary, and watching the movie gave me the feeling that I was just getting a hint of Thompson's novel. I can't fault that, because it seems to be by the design of writer/director Bruce Robinson (Withnail and I), but I think I'll have to read it sometime soon. Other viewers who happen on the movie first will probably feel the same way.
Of course, cynical viewers could read the credits and, noting that the production got a lot of official help in Puerto Rico, be a little suspicious when messages come across softly. Still, the movie gets them across.
The real San Juan Star did eventually shut its doors, but not in 1960, as suggested in the movie. The paper made it until 2008, according to Wikipedia.
Like many a movie, The Rum Diary took way too long to get to the big screen. Oddly, since it came out in a period when newspapers -- and journalists -- are dealing with financial troubles, it proves good timing. The seriousness often is muted by sheer travelogue beauty and goofiness, but it comes through enough to give the movie a grounding in reality.
Not guilty. It's got plenty of nuts -- and alcohol, and even a point, maybe.
Review content copyright © 2012 James A. Stewart; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 120 Minutes
Release Year: 2011
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Wikipedia: San Juan Star