MOVIE REVIEW: The Rum Diary

Let’s see if we have the ingredients of The Rum Diary correct:
1) writer ventures to exotic locale and trashes a hotel room
2) an overweight, alcoholic, occasionally drug-addled sidekick
3) lots of authority-dodging and public humiliation
4) a very bad drug trip due to ingestion of a strange substance from an eyedropper
5) one of the two stays behind while the other leaves at the end of the film
Yep.  The Rum Diary is just another retelling of Terry Gilliam’s adaptation of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, but with a calmer, saner approach to its storytelling.

Both Fear and Loathing… and The Rum Diary are novels by the late Hunter S. Thompson, made into movies starring Johnny Depp in 1998 and 2010, respectively.  The Rum Diary is just getting released this year, and it’s being advertised in various turns as a comedy or an adventure story.  Neither are true; in fact, it’s hard to define this movie at all.  It’s more of a fly-on-the-wall glimpse into the weird life of journalist Paul Kemp (Depp) who, after becoming disillusioned with American politics in the 1960s, tries to eke out a living writing for the San Juan Star in Puerto Rico.  Instead, he finds that things are almost just as bad there as they are Stateside.

It’s a film of political and financial intrigue, as Kemp is hired by slick businessman Howell Sanderson (Aaron Eckhart) to write the brochure for his burgeoning resort; seducing Kemp with cars, money, and a gorgeous woman named Chenault (Amber Heard), Sanderson soon has Kemp in his pocket, just like he does the rest of the island.  It’s Kemp’s fight to get out of his pocket that is The Rum Diary‘s concern, but it’s not overly compelling or engaging at all.  The movie spends its time following Kemp and two of his co-workers, Bob Salas (Michael Rispoli) and Moberg (Giovanni Ribisi) in somewhat of a booze-fueled haze, never really knowing the reasons for any of the predicaments in which they find themselves stumbling through.

The film’s tagline is “Absolutely nothing in moderation”, seemingly promising a lack of control which The Rum Diary never achieves.  Take out the rum-swilling and the drug trip scene and you’ve got a fairly run-of-the-mill “stick it to The Man” story, which doesn’t get off the ground at all.  From minute one, the film just kind of flatlines and goes nowhere.  As it is Depp’s task to carry the movie (which he does, admirably), there is absolutely no scene at all without him; all action peripheral to him is never experienced.  We truly see his world through his eyes, which alternate between jaded and bewildered, but everything is handled with a very placid hand.  There’s very little to care about here, save for the relationship between Kemp and Chenault; what starts as a mild flirtation with a taken woman turns into one of the sexiest pairings the silver screen has ever contained.  Chenault’s smoldering sultriness helps draw that little bit of daring out of the withdrawn Kemp, igniting that small spark that translates into what could be called an “awakening” that lasts the rest of the film.

The Rum Diary is not a film meant to be enjoyed; instead, it is only there to be witnessed.  If the film is taken that way, then it succeeds.  But if you’re drawn in by the false promise of another quirky Johnny Depp performance or the adverts’ claim of comedy or romance, look elsewhere.  Neither overstated nor understated, The Rum Diary gives you its look at a man who lands in the middle of outrageous circumstances by dropping you in with him and leaving you just as quickly.

FINAL GRADE:  C

Reel Film News Movie Review by Eddie Pasa

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