WRITER’S NOTE: This review was written back in 2011, long before a certain Hollywood couple’s relationship became toxic and imploded in front of the whole world. Also, Ralph Garman recently featured this film as a Video Vault selection on “The Ralph Report,” and I applaud him for doing so.
Based on the book written by the late Hunter S. Thompson, “The Rum Diary” captures the Gonzo journalist at perhaps his earliest point in life which came to define his style of writing. Johnny Depp plays Jack Kemp, but as he did with his character of Raoul Duke in Terry Gilliam’s “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,” he is essentially channeling Thompson here whom he had befriended years ago. It also marks Bruce Robinson’s first directorial effort in 19 years (the last being “Jennifer 8”), and he clearly has not lost his touch.
Kemp is a rootless journalist who has come to Puerto Rico to write for The San Juan Star. Having had his fill of New York and the Eisenhower administration, he longs to escape to a paradise that will not make him feel his age. But as beautiful as Puerto Rico is, there is an ugliness that cuts away at the façade which the other newspaper employees escape from through their use of drugs and alcohol, especially rum. Kemp also comes across American businessman Hal Sanderson (Aaron Eckhart) who wants Kemp to write a favorable report on his latest greedy scheme, and that is to turn Puerto Rico into a paradise for the wealthy. Soon Kemp will have to decide if he wants to use his words to help Sanderson or expose him for the “bastard” he truly is.
No other actor can successfully emulate the brilliant craziness of Thompson like Depp can. Unlike in “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,” his Hunter-esque character of Kemp is a little more down to earth. Of course, this is only saying so much. Having been freed, albeit temporarily, from those “Pirates of the Caribbean” movies, he gives one of his best performances in a while as he takes Kemp from the highs of his chemical dependency to showing his more vulnerable side as he falls for Sanderson’s fiancée, Chenault (the ever so beautiful Amber Heard).
“The Rum Diary” also features terrific performances from a perfectly chosen supporting cast. Michael Rispoli is great fun as photojournalist Bob Salas who is the first real friend Kemp makes in Puerto Rico. Richard Jenkins never lets that wig he’s wearing upstage him as newspaper editor Edward J. Lotterman. Aaron Eckhart finds just the right balance in playing Sanderson as he charms everyone around him and yet hints subtlety at the vicious businessman hiding beneath the surface. But it is Giovanni Ribisi who almost steals the show as Moberg, a hygienically challenged religion reporter always under the influence of some sort of narcotic.
Robinson also wrote the screenplay and revels in each of the character’s bizarre eccentricities. These are some of the more unusual characters I have seen in any 2011 movie, and they are the kind which has been missing from movies in general. Things do drag a bit towards the end, and I wish he would have brought more of the same manic energy Gilliam brought to “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.” Still, he has managed to make a movie most Hollywood studios rarely, if ever, dare to greenlight these days.
“The Rum Diary” may be a story from the past, but it is a story of rich people displacing native citizens for their own wealthy benefit, something not lost on American audiences these days. The paranoia-filled philosophies of certain characters make the advancement of the Tea Party seem not as big a surprise in hindsight. But as pummeled as Kemp gets, you believe he will get the “bastards” with words, and that his words will bruise his most unforgiving enemies. We all yearn for someone to stick it to the man, and Depp gives us a character who can do just that. Seeing him back in Hunter S. Thompson’s realm is a real treat.
* * * out of * * * *