The Rum Diary (2011)
★ / ★★★★
Paul Kemp (Johnny Depp), a freelance journalist and novelist, is hired by Lotterman (Richard Jenkins) to work for a local newspaper in 1960 Puerto Rico. Paul wishes to get away from New York so even though he is not exactly happy that he has been assigned to write daily horoscopes and banal stories about bowling alleys, he takes comfort in holding down a job. Sanderson (Aaron Eckhart), a real-estate developer with a beautiful fiancée, Chenault (Amber Heard), introduces himself to alcohol-addicted Kemp. Aware of Kemp’s gift with words, Sanderson hopes to use the writer to help support his business partners’ dubious plans.
“The Rum Diary,” directed by Bruce Robinson, sweeps important issues like alcoholism, ethics of journalism, and political/racial tension under the rug in order to make room for would-be funny trivialities like Kemp experimenting with drugs with the newspaper photographer (Michael Rispoli), getting in trouble with the locals due to classic American hubris, and visiting a hermaphrodite witch.
The material is not at all entertaining, despite the so-called misadventures, because it does not bother to juggle action and reaction. Kemp, despite being a hardcore alcoholic, is miraculously able to function and proudly stand up for his ideals in a clear and rational way. By the end, it seems like the lesson that the movie wants to impart is that adventure is a product of alcoholism—a message so off-putting, it left a bitter aftertaste on my palate.
Would it have been too much to ask for the filmmakers to have given us an ounce of realism or a pinch of genuine human drama as a trampoline for comedic situations as to not insult our intelligence and time? I chuckled once or twice because of brilliantly delivered lines by Moberg (Giovanni Ribisi), the newspaper’s writer who covers stories about religion. His obsession with drugs and Hitler as well as his rivalry against his boss, Lotterman, are the highlights of an otherwise lifeless film.
The rest of the time, however, I was disappointed by the material’s innate stupidity. For instance, after Kemp drowns himself in alcohol the night before, the picture shows him with a hangover the next morning for about one or two scenes: bloodshot eyes, unkempt hair, his stomach urging to gag. So far so good. But by the third scene, Kemp looks perfectly normal, sober, not a trace of evidence that his health—forget the hangover—is on a downward spiral. Look, many of us have had nights where our friends had been a little too generous taking shots. Morning is hell: very rarely do they get over the nausea, dehydration, and other symptoms that come with the condition in under one hour. As a result, when the screenplay makes incredible jumps as such, we no longer see the character; we see Depp acting and we are completely taken out of the picture.
Furthermore, since the material lacks focus and a proper dosage of realism, when it takes very serious turns, the human drama does not feel earned. I did not care about Kemp being regretful of his failed career, his wanting to expose Sanderson’s shady business, and his tricky romance with Chenault. I just wished it would end so I could do something better with my time.
Based on a novel by Hunter S. Thompson, “The Rum Diary” is chock full of badly executed ideas, slothful pacing, and careless editing that causes confusion. Just because the main character is an unapologetic drunk it does not mean that the work should not have had an ounce of clarity.