Johnny Depp, Aaron Eckhart, Giovanni Ribisi, Amber Heard, Richard Jenkins, Michael Rispoli
WRITTEN AND DIRECTED BY
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To fully appreciate The Rum Diary, it may very well be of great importance to embrace the writings of gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson. It may also help the cause to be intoxicated. Severely.
Brought to the big screen thanks largely to the persistence of longtime Thompson fan Johnny Depp, The Rum Diary comes from a long forgotten manuscript of Thompson's that Depp found in the author's house. One of his earliest writings, The Rum Diary was one of the last to be published, a fictionalized account of one of his first journalism jobs writing for an English language paper in Puerto Rico.
Depp is Paul Kemp, sort of a pre-Gonzo Gonzo with a lackadaisical work ethic, a love for psychedelic drugs, a bit of political rage and, in this flick, a bit of a struggle to find his literary voice. If you're hoping for another round of Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas, you're probably going to come away disappointed from this visually interesting, moderately entertaining flick where nothing overly dramatic really happens and the film never goes anywhere near over the edge as did Fear & Loathing.
The Rum Diary isn't timid, but let's just say that Hunter S. Thompson was a heck of a lot more interesting once he discovered his own voice and went after it relentlessly. The film is penned by Bruce Robinson, whose last film was 1992's Jennifer Eight but who also gave us the underrated Withnail and I, a script said to be semi-autobiographical. While the part of Kemp is technically way too young for Depp, it's also doubtful that anyone else could have played it and to his credit Depp sort of embraces the character as more of a "second chance" kind of guy rather than a young journalist.
One of the greatest things about Depp is that he's never really hesitated to surround himself with shining stars, though in recent years his Captain Jack Sparrow has certainly shined brighter than virtually anyone else who has shared the screen with him in those films. Here, Depp's trademark off-kilter character is matched note-for-note by his supporting players including the always dependable Giovanni Ribisi as a rather haunting journalist named Moburg, who qualifies as closer to Gonzo than Kemp does in this film. Michael Rispoli also shines as seasoned photog Sala, whose scenes with Depp are riddled with excitement and electricity. Richard Jenkins, as the San Juan Star's declining publisher, a man not so much defeated as simply resigned to his inability to create actual journalism in this corrupt, chaotic land.
Kemp gets an offer to taste a bit of success courtesy of a shady developer (Aaron Eckhart), whose girlfriend (Amber Heard) takes a shine to Kemp. The feeling is mutual.
There are lots of interesting characters in The Rum Diary, which at least partly helps to distract from the fact that not much happens with any of them. Even worse, Depp's Kemp is really the least interesting one here, though I'll take his work here over that godawful The Tourist any day. Truthfully, Depp has always been a more interesting actor when he's dancing on the edge of normalcy and, unfortunately, there's far too much normalcy in The Rum Diary. It's Ribisi and Rispoli who really steal the spotlight here, Ribisi with his quirky mannerisms and Rispoli with one of his best roles in quite some time.
Fans of Hunter S. Thompson or, for that matter, most anyone in this film, are likely to find quite a bit to enjoy here. It's highly unlikely that anyone else will much enjoy it. If you require the "beginning, middle and end" approach to filmmaking, then The Rum Diary may drive you fairly close to insane. If you've been aware of Depp's longtime devotion to Thompson, then mostly you'll be able to see The Rum Diary for what it is ... Depp's loving and loyal tribute to a good friend and a writer who stood up and stood out for all of society's misfits and outcasts and had no problem flipping off a society that too often demands conformity and compliance.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic