Bruce Robinson's The Rum Diary
Here's the link to the published version of my review in my column at The Richmond Examiner:
The Rum Diary (2011)
“The Rum Diary” is based on a novel written by the eccentric journalist Hunter S. Thompson, who many remember as the creator of Gonzo Journalism and for his use of multiple drugs. The novel was written sometime in the early 60s, but didn’t get published until 1998, eventually becoming a sort of passion project for Johnny Depp, who had become close friends with Thompson. After a long struggle to get the film made, it has finally made its way into theaters.
It tells the story of Paul Kemp (Johnny Depp), who has come to Puerto Rico to take a job at a small newspaper known as the San Juan Star. Nobody else wanted the job, so he gets it rather easily. He moves in with a couple of other guys working for the paper. There’s Moburg (Giovanni Ribisi), who seems to be despised by the editor of the paper (Richard Jenkins), and yet still shows up occasionally. Paul’s closer friend becomes Sala (Michael Rispoli), with whom he gets into a bit of trouble.
Luckily, Paul was currently being courted to write a series of real estate articles for a local man, Sanderson (Aaron Eckhart), who is looking to build a hotel on a nearby island. Sanderson bails them out of jail and both Paul and Sala end up at one of his parties where Paul begins to get close with Sanderson’s wife, Chenault (Amber Heard). This, on top of the fact that the San Juan Star is in a steep decline, only creates more problems for Paul.
To get straight to the heart of the matter, “The Rum Diary” is a film that almost entirely lacks focus. The filmmakers want it to be about so many different things that you never really end up caring about what’s going to happen next. The most focus it gets is when Sanderson asks Paul to write the real estate articles, which is a subplot that carries over until about the last half hour of the movie, but even when it’s the main plot going on, the film never focuses on it.
Because of this, we get a film that feels very episodic, jumping continually from one thing to the next, and not taking time to develop any of the scenarios it presents. It goes from Paul taking the job at the San Juan Star to his deal with Sanderson to Paul’s adventures with Chenault to Paul wanting to get something printed at the dying paper. By the time it’s done, you find that it’s just been one jumbled mess of episodes.
This adaptation of Thomson’s book comes from Bruce Robinson, who is most known for bringing us the overrated cult film “Withnail & I.” After finding out that this was the same writer/director, it started to become clear why “The Rum Diary” had been as meandering as it had. Robinson had had the same problem keeping focus with “Withnail & I.” He wasn’t able to bring focus to a central story, but instead made it a loose series of adventures, which turned it into a dull mess.
You may recall that this is not Depp’s first go at playing a version of Thompson. He also did so in Terry Gilliam’s “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,” where he played a very strange, eccentric version of the author. In “The Rum Diary,” he is much more reserved, drinking occasionally, but never seeming to get out of control. In a way, this doesn’t really help the film at all as it was in dire need of something to spice it up a little, as Depp’s performance had done for “Fear and Loathing.”
I’ve never read the book this film is based on, but if it was as unfocused as this, then it should have been clear from the start that it wouldn’t make a good film. It’s just a shame that Depp spent so much time trying to bring this film to light for his dear old friend. He even went so far as to go out on the road on a college tour to promote the film. Perhaps this material works better as a novel, where Thompson would have been able to take his time developing each story as it occurred, but as a film, it just doesn’t work. 2/4 stars.
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