Johnny Depp. Hunter S. Thompson. Drugs. Drink. Comedy.
You’re probably already sold on The Rum Diary. It’s got Academy Awards written all over it and if you’re not a fan of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, you’re probably a communist. It’s coming out of the blocks with some pretty solid buzz, and it’s got a spate of quality actors in it and a story that’s pretty relevant to the times we find ourselves in. Plus: Johnny Depp. Hunter S. Thompson. Drugs. Drink. Comedy.
But just hold on, because it turns out The Rum Diary isn’t quite the film that those parts should add up to. Thankfully it’s parts are still pretty darn great.
The Rum Diary
Director: Bruce Robinson
Release Date: October 28, 2011
I’ll be honest here and say that I haven’t actually read The Rum Diary so if you’re looking for a review that talks about how well the film was adapted you’ll have to head elsewhere. I can, however, tell you the story of the movie. In the 1950s, reporter Hunter S. Thompson Paul Kemp (Johnny Depp) finds his way to Puerto Rico where he grabs a job at a failing newspaper and becomes embroiled in a land grab scheme run by the smarmy Sanderson (Aaron Eckhart). This is the driving part of the film’s plot and what triggers the inevitable message of the film (“the man” is evil), but it’s far from the actually interesting part of the movie. That stems from the interactions between Kemp and his fellow reporters Sala (Michael Rispoli) and Moburg (Giovanni Ribisi), which involve drunken nights, listening to recordings of Hitler, heavy drug use, cock fighting and an attempt to publish their own newspaper. Mostly it’s these side stories from the film that are the most interesting as the main plot, along with a romance between Kemp and Sanderson’s girlfriend Chenault (Amber Heard), fall to the wayside. Of course, isn’t that always the way with a Thompson story? The small parts are what you remember most.
The Rum Diary is, in fact, a bunch of parts that never really seems to come together as a whole. Maybe that’s an issue with adapting a novel as complex as a Hunter S. Thompson novel can be, or maybe it’s just poor filmmaking, but the fantastic parts of the movie never come together to make a fantastic whole. Instead the film feels almost like a series of vignettes, some that work incredibly well and others that fall flat on their face while attempting humor or drama. It’s strange to veer so far in quality from one scene to the next, but on the whole, nothing ever gels in the film.
The scenes that do work, work really well though. These scenes usually involve Kemp and Sala attempting to escape from the law, drinking heavily or doing drugs. They’re mostly the scenes that don’t advance the plot, but do make you enjoy the film. One in particular involving the two of them attempting to drive Sala’s car back home after the front seat has been removed is without a doubt one of the funniest scenes I have seen all year thanks to how wonderfully put together it is and how fantastically dead pan Depp plays it. There are simply some fantastic comic vignettes in the movie, but they’re sandwiched in between a plot that never seems to get going and other comedy that doesn’t work.
The cast feels a bit disjointed as well. Depp is, of course, absolutely fantastic as Kemp, channeling Thompson perfectly, and Rispoli plays off him wonderfully. It’s easy to see Ribisi getting a supporting actor nod for his always drunk yet somehow complex portrayal of Moburg as well. Every time the three of them are on screen together in some combination the film lights up and sucks you in. Eckhart on the other hand does his best to create a character, but is so limited in screen time that it’s damn near impossible for him to develop Sanderson beyond the snark and evil that his best smirk and playboy good looks deliver. Worst of all is how out of her league Heard seems to be, especially going up against Depp’s fantastic Kemp. Almost everything she does fails to match up with the intensity of Depp’s performance and it makes their relationship the least interesting part of the film when it should be one of the driving aspects.
It’s a little strange to walk out of a film having truly enjoyed multiple aspects of it, but not having really enjoyed the film as a whole. It’s like watching an episode of Saturday Night Live and and laughing at the Digital Short and a few other sketches, but unable to call the whole episode good. What’s very clear from The Rum Diaries is that Depp and Thompson are a fantastic duo (both in real life when Thompson was alive and with Depp portraying his characters), but hopefully the next Thomphson adaption can live up to the stature of that team a bit better.