No film is an island: ‘The Rum Diary’ (Bruce Robinson, 2011)

| February 27, 2012

Reviewed by Mary Schuler DeWitt

“Let’s fly way up to the clouds away from the maddening crowds…Let us leave the confusion and all disillusion behind.”  Those are the words to the opening song, Volare, sung by Dean Martin, heard at the beginning of The Rum Diary, directed by Bruce Robinson. If only they were true, and in this case they are not.

Johnny Depp is back playing the main character, Paul Kemp, in a version of the late Hunter Thompson’s book of the same name. Thompson’s gonzo journalism forte is again apparent in this movie. But it does not even compare to Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, directed by Terry Gilliam and also starring Depp.  That was more of a cinematically pleasurable exploration of the search for the American Dream, a journey including the degradation of the symbols of American consumerism.  It isn’t surprising that the contradiction of “solace in excess” also appears in one of Thompson’s favorite books, The Great Gatsby.

The movie begins with an aerial view of a magnificent Puerto Rico seascape from a small hopper plane. Soon the viewer is taken through the city streets of what seems to be San Juan.  It is the 1950’s and Paul Kemp, a journalist, has accepted a freelance job to write daily horoscopes for a local newspaper that is in debt.  The movie is an attempt to keep up with Kemp’s ongoing struggle to get along with the locals and inhabit the culture of what is known as “island life.”  However, in its second half, the film itself tends to struggle as the story line drops off.  And so does Depp’s acting. This movie appears to be another attempt for Depp to jump start his career after failing in too many potboilers such as The Tourist.

The plot is fairly simple. Kemp eventually meets Sanderson, played by Aaron Eckert, who makes a deal with him to help market and promote the building of condominium complexes on a newly discovered island located nearby. The deal falls through as a result of Kemp’s reckless attitude on an outing with Sanderson and other friends.  It is apparent that Sanderson’s girlfriend Chenault, played by Amber Heard, shows a liking for Kemp — much to Sanderson’s displeasure. By the end of the movie, the local newspaper Kemp works for is going under due to lack of financing. Despite his last minute efforts, it turns out that it cannot be saved. In the end, he decides to save himself by leaving Puerto Rico, setting sail for New York City.

The absurdity of this story is illustrated in one scene where Kemp takes a hallucinogenic with a local, Sala, played by Michael Rispoli. Kemp’s hallucinations get the better of him as he claims Sala’s tongue has turned into a lizard. Another character, Moburg (Giovanni Ribisi), intoxicated throughout the movie, provides some humor to break up the flatness of the plot but does little more.

If you like Hunter Thompson, read the books, unless you would like to see Depp driving around Puerto Rico for an hour and a half drinking with the locals.

One last note: the soundtrack by Christopher Young is well worth a listen.