Written PostJosh Reviews The Rum Diary!

Josh Reviews The Rum Diary!

It’s not getting much notice in theatres, it seems, but I found myself quite taken with The Rum Diary, Bruce Robinson’s adaptation of Hunter S. Thompson’s book, starring Johnny Depp.

I am not at all a devotee of Hunter S. Thompson.  I have not read the novel on which this film is based, and I must somewhat ashamedly confess that much of what I know of Mr. Thompson is drawn from the character of Duke from Doonesbury. Still, I’m familiar with the man’s reputation, and The Rum Diary serves up a fine dose of the debauchery, booze, journalism, and a dash more debauchery I was expecting from an adaptation of one of his novels.

Johnny Depp plays the main character, Paul Kemp (seemingly a stand-in for Mr. Thompson himself, which makes this film Mr. Depp’s second go-round at playing him, after Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas). We meet Paul on his first day in Puerto Rico, recovering from a hell of a bender that apparently is not an aberration for Mr. Kemp.  He’s taken a job at a dying newspaper in Puerto Rico, and the film never quite makes clear whether this is borne from Kemp’s sense of adventure or simply because this barely-functional drunk can’t hold down a steady job anywhere else.

The role is a fine showcase for Mr. Depp’s talents, talents that I was beginning to think were lost and gone after one too many horribly cartoonish performances in Tim Burton films.  While Paul Kemp is gloriously weird and teetering on unhinged, Mr. Depp keeps the weirdness dialed just within the realm of believably human.  And he brings a charm to the character that allows us to continue to sort-of root for the fellow, even as we watch him be pretty much a complete boor for much of the film.

Kemp repeatedly states (most often to his boss at the paper, Lotterman) that he’s trying to cut down on his booze-intake.  It seems clear that he says that just to appease his boss, or because he knows that’s probably what he should be saying to people.  But Mr. Depp is able to squeeze just enough decency into the character that we wonder if maybe he does realize, somewhere in the back of his brain, that maybe his booze-and-drugs-fueled lifestyle is not the way to go.

Not that Kemp really learns that lesson by the end of the movie, which is part of what I loved about the film.  We do get a rousing “call-to-action” section late in the film, in which a series of events finally drives Kemp to actually want to do some real journalism.  He unleashes a stirring speech about the power of the press, and I wondered if in that moment we weren’t truly hearing Hunter S. Thompson speak through his character.  It certainly made a film set in the 1950’s potently relevant in today’s world, in which we’re daily witnessing the demise of once-great newspapers.  But Kemp doesn’t transform into a saint by the film’s end.  He remains as flawed a character as he was when we first met him, though he has finally found some direction for his life.

Richard Jenkins is great as the beleaguered newspaper editor-in-chief Lotterman, and Michael Rispoli really impressed me as Kemp’s friend Sala.  This rumpled photographer befriends Kemp on his first day in Puerto Rico, and his predilection for alcohol and drugs meshes nicely with Kemp’s enjoyment of the same.  Sala might be a total train-wreck, but the character has the biggest heart of anyone in the film, and I quite enjoyed watching the easy friendship that develops between the two men.  The movie’s story often takes a back-seat for scenes in which we watch these two guys do something stupid, and those are some of my favorite moments in the film.  (The Rum Diary isn’t a laugh-a-minute film by any stretch of the imagination, but it is quite funny at parts, particularly a sequence mid-movie involving Kemp sitting on Sala’s lap, trying to steer Sala’s broken-down old car.)

But I was really blown away by Giovanni Ribisi, almost unrecognizable underneath layers of filth and a squeeky voice as the former newspaper reporter, now living-in-the-gutters drug-addicted wreck Moburg.  Moburg represents the worst-case scenario end-result of Kemp (and Thompson’s?) reckless lifestyle.  It’s been a while since I’ve been all that interested in one of Mr. Ribisi’s performances, but he knocks it out of the park with this role.  His Moburg is one of the most bizarre character creations I’ve seen in a long time.  He’s instantly the stand-out character in the piece, and Moburg is the element of the movie that has most stuck with me since I saw it.

The film’s one mis-step comes in the final seconds, with a terribly out-of-place text piece over the final shot that seems to suggest an easy happy ending for all of the characters.  I found myself wondering if it was meant to be a joke.  If so, it didn’t play for me.  If not, it seemed like a tone-deaf ending for a film which had, to that point, carefully avoided any Hollywood magical happy-endings for any of the characters.

The Rum Diary isn’t an A-plus hit, but it’s a nice piece of story-telling for adults, a rarity in cinemas these days.

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