With Bruce Robinson’s new film “The Rum Diary” being based on an early book by famed gonzo journalist Hunter S Thompson, it’s hard not to compare it to Terry Gilliam’s 1998 film adaption of Thompson’s later book “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.”
The two share similarities. They both have protagonists who are looking for something and escaping from something else. Also, there’s plenty of partying and drugged out adventures. There are fewer drugs in “The Rum Diary” (mostly just rum) compared to the smorgasbord of narcotics in “Fear and Loathing,” but plenty of partying nonetheless. Partying that’s entertaining but repetitive.
However, “The Rum Diary” isn’t nearly as incoherent and messy as “Fear and Loathing.” It’s still a weird fantasy but it stays on track instead of meandering around (for a while anyway). To put it another way, it’s not just one big drug induced haze.
The film is set in 1960’s San Juan Puerto Rico, which by the way, looks beautiful. Cinematographer Dariusz Wolski brings out the sparkling, sunny beaches and the old deteriorating buildings of the city. While Chris Seagers’ production design along with Christopher Young’s swingy, jazzy score gives the film an authentic 60’s look and feel.
Paul Kemp, played by Johnny Depp (who is basically Hunter Thompson) is a freelance reporter who is looking for his writing voice and trying to get away from all the chaos of America. He takes a job at a struggling newspaper, The San Juan Star, in hopes to cover the Puerto Rican culture, but since Puerto Rico is a U.S territory, it is essentially controlled by Americans. So naturally his somewhat corrupt American editor, Lotterman (Richard Jenkins, fantastic as always but underused) wants him to cover the light stuff.
Depp is no stranger to playing bizarre characters, or Thompson personas for that matter (he played Raoul Duke in “Fear and Loathing”). Depp plays Paul twitchy, jittery and slightly paranoid. He isn’t nearly as animated as Duke, or many of the other characters Depp has played but that isn’t a bad thing. Paul does drink…a lot, but he does it nonchalantly with his slicked back hair and thick dark shades covering his bloodshot eyes as a result of a drinking binge the night before.
Overall, the central theme in “The Rum Diary” is the whole issue of class. The rich and the poor. The natives are the poor and dirty grunts, while the Americans are the rich greedy, clean ones. Smoking their cigars and driving their fast cars. Not surprising, coming from Thompson. There are even some shots at Nixon.
This is where the other plot comes in. Paul runs into the smooth, arrogant and corrupt businessman Sanderson (Aaron Eckhart) who, along with a few other arrogant and corrupt businessmen, wants to exploit a small island off the coast of Puerto Rico by building a chain of fancy resorts and they want Paul to write the brochures.
Though, the picture isn’t preachy by any means. Hunter doesn’t shove all this political stuff down your throat. It’s still a wacky adventure and it shouldn’t be taken as anything more. The script, by Robinson, is filled with a number of clever one-liners, such as “Don’t confuse love with lust and judgment with drunkenness.”
Eventually the film loses its footing, tripping and staggering all over the place. The fancy resort story gets built up fairly well but then it’s just abruptly abandoned and the film goes to back to the newspaper plot. The picture gets side tracked on numerous occasions and goes off on crazy tangents. Like when the paper gets shut down and the staff decides to print one last issue of the paper to expose the truth of everything. But first they have to get money so Paul and his friend Sala (Michael Rispoli) go to a cockfight, but before they can do that they have to take their chicken to a kooky witch doctor to get it blessed. Plus there were a few extended sequences throughout that slowed it down tremendously, like when Paul and Sala trip out on a drug you take in through your eyes.
The good thing about adapting a Hunter S Thompson book is that you know you’ll get a unique story and “The Rum Diary” isn’t your average adventure film. Yes, it’s a little unfocused but it’s still wildly entertaining and amusing. And Johnny Depp in his element is always fun to watch.