It’s hard not to compare The Rum Diary to Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Not only are both based off of novels by famed gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson, but Johnny Depp inhabits versions of Thompson in both films.
The Rum Diary may not have much more of a plot than Terry Gilliam’s cult film, but it’s a much more sober film—if that word can be applied to anything involving Thompson.
Directed by Bruce Robinson (Withnail and I) The Rum Diary follows Paul Kemp (Johnny Depp) a newly hired reporter for The San Juan Star, a local newspaper in Puerto Rico. Like many of Thompson’s characters, Kemp is a fictionalized version of himself with a heavy taste for booze and a desire to make his mark through the written word. Unfortunately, he’s hired as little more than an errand boy and the editor, Lotterman (Richard Jenkins), has all but given up on reporting hard news.
But it doesn’t take long for Kemp to make some friends, including staff photographer Sala (Michael Rispoli), who becomes his closest confidante. He also crosses paths with Sanderson (Aaron Eckhart) who entices Kemp with his expensive cars, beach front property but, especially, his girlfriend Chenault (Amber Heard). Chenault is the requisite femme fatale of the film, and with whom Kemp falls head over heels for instantly.
It’s a film that slowly meanders from place to place and Kemp is no wiser than the viewer about what dangers lay around each corner. Kemp is simultaneously trying to become the writer he believes he can be while finding his way in the new land he finds himself in. It’s a hot, desolate place filled with poverty, but also a vacation destination for overweight Americans that never leave their hotels and are oblivious to what their tourism is doing to the country. Sanderson represents the bloated American dream and Kemp is tempted by the money, while also wanting to expose the shady backroom deals and exploitation on the island, much to Lotterman’s chagrin.
If it has any similarities to Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas it’s that Kemp is a younger version of Raoul, testing his limits with alcohol and drugs, but still an idealistic mind. Ironically, Depp is much older now but since he never seems to age, it isn’t of much consequence. He plays Kemp with the a similar dryness but much more subdued.
The film is littered with dark moments of humor, especially Giovanni Ribisi’s Moburg. Perhaps the best character of the entire film, he’s the most “famous” reporter for The Star but has since descended into hopeless alcoholism. Yet as the film soldier’s on, it’s apparent Moberg is much more aware than the film originally let on and is almost a cautionary tale for what Kemp could become if he sticks around.
Like Thompson’s novel, the film isn’t about an overarching plot or a goal the character’s are slowly working toward. Instead it’s satirical character study that revels in momentary pleasures. It’s not a revelatory film, nor as exciting as Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, but the acting is top notch and if you’re able to stay with it, moment to moment, it’s quite enjoyable.
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