Based on the early novel by Hunter S. Thompson, The Rum Diary
tells the increasingly unhinged story of itinerant journalist Paul Kemp (Johnny Depp). Tiring of the noise and madness of New York and the crushing conventions of late Eisenhower-era America, Kemp travels to the pristine island of Puerto Rico to write for a local newspaper, The San Juan Star, run by downtrodden editor Lotterman (Richard Jenkins). Adopting the rum-soaked life of the island, Paul soon becomes obsessed with Chenault (Amber Heard), the wildly attractive Connecticut-born fiance of Sanderson (Aaron Eckhart). Sanderson, a businessman involved in shady property development deals, is one of a growing number of American entrepreneurs who are determined to convert Puerto Rico into a capitalist paradise in service of the wealthy. When Kemp is recruited by Sanderson to write favorably about his latest unsavory scheme, the journalist is presented with a choice: to use his words for the corrupt businessmen's financial benefit, or use them to take the bastards down.
"The Rum Diary" novel, by Hunter S. Thompson: Digital Version Nook/Print Edition Kindle Edition
Soundtrack: The Rum Diary (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack) - Various Artists
Based on the Hunter S. Thompson novel of the same name, The Rum Diary is the story of Paul Kemp (Johnny Depp), an American novelist who takes a job as a freelance journalist at a struggling newspaper in 1960's Puerto Rico. His first day at the paper, he is offered a place to stay by the freewheeling photographer Bob Sala (Michael Rispoli from Kick-Ass), who shares a run-down shack with another reporter from the paper, a drunken lunatic named Moberg (Lost in Translation's Giovanni Ribisi). While he's on an assignment, Kemp meets an enterprising businessman named Sanderson (Aaron Eckhart from Thank You for Smoking), who proposes that the writer help him out with a shady real estate scheme. Kemp's lust for the man's fiancee, a little minx named Chenault (Amber Heard from Drive Angry and The Ward), persuades him to agree, but he soon finds himself caught between the unsavory locals and the upper-class crooks on the island as he tries to navigate his way through the culture to which he is a complete stranger.
The Rum Diary does not quite live up to its name. Aside from one obligatory drug trip, it's not the booze-soaked, drug-fueled romp that an audience might expect from a Hunter S. Thompson tale. It's true that the characters drink a lot, but, aside from Moberg, none of them seems perpetually drunk or hung over, and the alcohol serves as more of a backdrop than a central theme. Adapted from Thompson's book by writer/director Bruce Robinson (Withnail & I, Jennifer 8), the screenplay is almost episodically disjointed, with subplots that have little to do with the main story bookending the real action. Even so, it is structured in a way that makes it feel like a complete film, not just pages from a longer memoir. There are funny moments and suspenseful moments, but in the end it's neither a comedy nor a thriller, just a well done drama. It drags a bit at times, especially during some of the side plots, and the whole film could probably be trimmed by about 30 minutes, but in the end, the beautiful locations and the colorful characters keep the film interesting enough to sit through and enjoy.
Johnny Depp tends to get pigeonholed, a victim of the eccentric and oddball characters that he portrays. It's good for him to take on a film that lets him play a genuine character in between Willie Wonka's and Captain Jack Sparrows, if only for him to prove that he can actually act instead of just caricature. His Paul Kemp succeeds at this; Depp not only proves that he can still act, he makes it look easy. There's nothing zany or spooky about Kemp, and Depp plays him convincingly as a straight-up stranger in a strange world.
Although every member of the ensemble carries their own weight, the most noteworthy performance in The Rum Diary belongs to Giovanni Ribisi. He plays the persistently inebriated Moberg perfectly, making the audience wonder if the character is simply drunk or certifiably insane. In one scene, Moberg acts out how he would like to kill the editor-in-chief of the newspaper. Ribisi does not hold back one bit, acting out every shout, thrust, punch and scream. It's a comic moment that is played with absolutely no hint of humor. Ribisi shows, once again, that he is one of the most underrated character actors working today.
Director of Photography Dariusz Wolski seems to have made a career out of shooting Johnny Depp - he's done all four of the Pirates of the Caribbean movies as well as Alice in Wonderland (2010) and Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. The Rum Diary is a much more straight-forward film than Wolski's previous work with Depp, but that doesn't mean the cinematographer holds back. Wolski captures the beautiful ugliness of Fajardo, Puerto Rico (where most of the principal photography was done) by using wide angles and high, sweeping shots, showing as much of the surrounding scenery as possible. On the indoor scenes, Wolski uses plenty of camera motion and tight, closed in shots to illustrate the discomfort of the characters, and he always takes great care to show the talented actors' faces, aiding them without distracting from their performances.
Christopher Young's score captures two different essences of The Rum Diary. First off, it's derivative of the era - it sounds like the soundtrack to a 1960 film, with all the "cool" and "hip" that embodied the time period. Secondly, it mimics the ethnicity of Puerto Rican music, sounding like the cross between African, Indian, Spanish and American music that permeates the island. Young, who has scored dozens of films, including Drag Me to Hell, The Grudge and The Exorcism of Emily Rose, proves that he can write for much more than just horror films. He has a great ear for musical dialects, and he captures both the time period and geographical region of The Rum Diary perfectly.