I left the screening of The Rum Diary feeling as if the pacific ocean itself had washed over me. There was a warmth in my belly, and this sort of slack smile on my face as I pondered what I would write about this film. My feelings are mixed. I'm wholly aware that as a film, with character arcs and a plot and a message, it sort of falls a bit flat. But as an experience, well, it's a different story.
The Rum Diary follows the many Caribbean adventures of Paul Kemp (Johnny Depp). Depp channels the snappish cadence and befuddled eyebrows of his Fear and Loathing in Las Vegasperformance, but dials it down a notch or two. It's the 50's, and Kemp has moved to Peurto Rico for a writing job at the San Juan Star, a newspaper.
Though little is said about his backstory, it appears Depp's Paul Kemp is a man lost. Drinking consistently, a little fed up with the world and himself, and like any good writer, very eager to say yes to pretty much any crazy adventure or mind altering substances that come his way.
Which is convenient because this is, after all, a Hunter S. Thompson based movie, which more or less telegraphs there's to be a phenomenal amount of high quality debauchery. And on that front, The Rum Diary does not disappoint. The many adventures of Kemp, his rotund photographer buddy Bob (Michael Rispoli), and occasionally the so-far-gone-he's-back-again Morbeg (Giovanni Ribisi) are laugh-out-loud humorous. Morbeg specifically speaks in a high, winding, screeching voice that reminds me what a record player needle would sound like if it could talk.
The movie is sold on the chemistry of these leads, and audience will buy it most when they're shenaniganing about in the underbelly of 1950's Peurto Rico, getting involved in cock fights and voodoo and running from angry locals wielding guns and machetes. The interplay between all the characters, including Aaron Eckhart as PR guy attempting to build hotels on the island, is grand.
Then, there's the girl. Chennault (Amber Herd) isn't a fully formed character, but she enters the film in the kind of way that happens in the greatest of romantic fantasies, and it's the kind of entrance that would make a fellah remember (and chase after) a girl, regardless of BAC.
The chemistry between Depp and Amber Herd isn't quite there, but to be honest they don't get a whole ton of screen time together. Chennault probably represents some subtextual yearning of Kemp's for what all that is pure and lovely while he's consistently assaulted with the seedy nature of his craft. Kemp spends a good amount of time gazing at her while she's not looking, and we feel that this is Kemp's one ray of sunshine in an otherwise tumultuous, but empty, life.
However, I refuse to believe this is the material that has inspired a generation to take up arms against the phonies and the bastards of the world. I thought Hunter S. Thompson was about more than getting drunk and hight and chasing after girls. He was about something I thought.
And this movie is literally about nothing. It's written wonderfully, but nothing goes anywhere. Sure, toward the end of the movie, a semblance of a plot kicks in, and Kemp and Co. attempt to do something profound for all the right reasons, but this big realization, including Kemp's big monologue about “putting the bastards on notice” feels forced and only in there because it's a Thompson adaptation. The plotted elements of the movie arrive almost perpendicularly to the atmosphere, performances, and writing. Which is a shame, because the flick is so obviously a labor of love from all involved.
The movie feels literally willed into existence by Johnny Depp's stardom and his love of Thompson, and Director Bruce Robinson is in command of every frame. The failings, and my criticisms are of mostly the subjective sort, which makes things difficult. I wanted more plot development, I wanted things to be a little less lackadaisical, I wanted the big third act crisis to be a little less futile and silly and shoehorned. But these complaints are probably compliments to another movie-goer.
When I close my eyes and think about “The Rum Diary” I see myself sitting on a hard plastic beach chair gazing at a tequila orange sunset as the tide goes out. Like this movie, content to bathe in the scenery and character permeating paradise, in no real hurry to get much of anywhere. Thus, The Rum Diary is a nice place to visit, and even though I want to live there, I know I shouldn't.
As for whether you should see the film, let me respond like any good writer would: Sure, why not?
Paul Meekin can be found on twitter @MeekinOnMovies on Facebook and is currently starring in the hit web-based sketch-comedy show "FatMan and LittleGirl"