(Writing reviews is hard. I felt like practicing. Spoilers, obv.)
The Rum Diary opens with a small, bright red plane cruising over white sands, an aquamarine sea, through brilliant sunshine. A towline stretches offscreen, but we don’t see the banner until the moment the plane soars past Paul Kemp’s hotel room. The focus narrows from a bird’s-eye view of 1960 Puerto Rico to seeing it through Kemp’s eyes, which are currently bloodshot and pained as he launches into the day post-drinking binge.
Kemp is played by Johnny Depp and is essentially Hunter S. Thompson – The Rum Diary, of course, being Thompson’s autobiographical novel that Depp pushed to have published after discovering the manuscript at Thompson’s cabin. Depp’s played Thompson twice before – the Raoul Duke character in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and flavoring the title character in Rango with a Thompson-esque vibe.
Much like the joy of Captain Jack Sparrow wearing off with each new sequel in the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, the sense that we’ve been here before sets in from the start. And when the evil developers fly Kemp to the island they hope to despoil, I remembered Johnny Depp actually owns an island of his own – count him among the actors whose celebrity status has eclipsed his talents.
But even discounting the perennial awareness that we’re watching Johnny Depp (is he sporting the same haircut that made him so adorably brooding on 21 Jump Street?), The Rum Diary’s story at best charms, failing to fully engage.
The plot centers around upstart reporter Kemp’s initiation into Puerto Rico’s San Juan Star, a failing newspaper run by an editor more interested in keeping the right people happy than running stories about social justice or environmental exploitation. In the course of the movie, Kemp evolves from feeling like a failed novelist (no one is interested in the two books he’s written) to putting the “bastards” on notice – in other words, Thompson finds the voice that would go on to serve him well as a chronicler of American politics, excessive drug use and the combination of the two manifested into the once-novel gonzo journalism tradition.
He does this by feeling badly about the treatment of the native Puerto Ricans, who are starving, poor and abused. We know they’re starving and poor because Kemp takes a photo of a little girl playing in an abandoned car and then rants to his editor about “children are starving.” We know they’re abused because we see bad guy Sanderson (Thank You For Smoking’s Aaron Eckhardt) cussing out some skinny, disfigured locals who dare to view his beach from behind the fence he’s had put up to keep them out.
But Kemp doesn’t interact much with the locals, except at the cockfights he attends with Sala (Michael Rispoli in, hands down, the film’s best performance) and when he and Sala, drunk on “460 proof” rum, cause trouble at a shacky tavern in the jungle. The getaway scene triggers laughter – these guys are like your friends whose drinking stories you love to hear about, but are relieved to not have been part of. They’re also the only characters who have anything approximating complexity.
In fairness, not all the people of color are portrayed as starving, poor and abused. When Kemp flies over to St. Thomas for Carnival, we’re treated to a scene straight out of a 1920s jazz club which shows that black people can play music and dance real sexy, too. Also dancing real sexy is Sanderson’s girlfriend, Chanault.
In fact, Chanault, played by Amber Heard, burns up the screen whether she’s dancing, swimming or just making smoldering eyes at Kemp. She’s so hot that using the word “hot” in no way does justice to the scorching, searing attractiveness she embodies. But lest we think she’s simply eye candy of the most amazing sort, we also learn she’s bold and unconventional. We learn this because we’re subjected to a most clichéd scene involving Kemp and Chanault speeding down the highway in Sanderson’s loaner 1959 Corvette (the car is also very, very sexy). And because she’d rather skinny dip than listen to her boyfriend’s boring speech. And because she’s attracted to Johnny Depp, I mean, Paul Kemp.
True, Kemp’s a looker who stays amazingly cleaned-up, despite being regularly drunk or hungover and sharing a squalid apartment with Sala. The guy’s hair looks good, he’s rarely got more than a five o-clock shadow going and his clothes stay white and pressed – unlike Moburg, the former journalist turned wandering alcoholic with a bad case of the clap. More plot device than person, Moburg represents one path that awaits Kemp if he allows the booze to be more important than the story. But it’s also Moburg that gives Kemp and Sala the mind-expanding drug that kickstarts Kemp down the path of righteousness.
No longer morally conflicted, Kemp writes a story exposing Sanderson’s crooked land deal – he and his cronies want to keep building hotels, marinas and such, whereas Kemp continuously marvels at the beauty of the islands. As do we. Thanks to the cinematography and on-location shooting, the pretty side of Puerto Rico is lovingly illustrated.
When Kemp finally gets the girl, it’s shocking not because we didn’t expect it – the dolling up of the storyline doesn’t disguise its predictability – but because she’s hanging out in Kemp’s super gross apartment. Look, this place is inhabited by journalists and roosters, boasting rusty faucets and a level of filth that requires imbibing massive amounts of rum to be able to withstand and we’re supposed to believe that the shower and sheets are anything less than ewwwwwwww? No wonder she jumps ship to New York the next day.
Don’t worry though. While Kemp, Sala and Moburg fail to save Puerto Rico, the epilogue at the end assures us that Kemp nonetheless gets the girl and becomes a revered journalist. Of course he does.