By Brian Hall
The world of “The Rum Diary” is so nuanced and alive it’s palpable. It’s depiction of 1960’s Puerto Rico is sweaty, exotic and just slightly larger than life. It’s also dingy, dilapidated and dangerous. These skillfully captured attributes, along with its hodgepodge, anecdotal storytelling make watching the film feel less like a viewing experience and more of an immersion – for better or for worse, depending on what we’re experiencing from moment to moment.
The film is based on a quasi-autobiographical novel that infamous gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson wrote in his twenties. The manuscript ended up collecting dust in his basement for decades before pal Johnny Depp not only discovered it but suggested it be published and made into a movie. Fittingly, Depp not only produced the film but also plays Thompson’s doppelganger Paul Kemp. Kemp is an aspiring author still in search of his voice who has just relocated to Puerto Rico to begin work as a journalist at a newspaper on the fritz. He’s a drinker “on the upper end of social” and finds himself right at home among the other alcoholic journalists around him, including pal and future roommate Sala (Michael Rispoli) and the belligerent and apparently un-firable Moberg (Giovanni Ribisi.) All serve as thorns in the side of their weary editor, Lotterman (Richard Jenkins.)
Kemp soon finds himself being courted by a property development businessman named Sanderson, played by Aaron Eckhart. Sanderson hopes to entice Kemp into writing favorable pieces about some dealings he’s involved with, luring him with cars, parties and his beautiful girlfriend, Chenault (Amber Heard.) All of the actors do well mixing just the right amount of subtlety and silliness making their characters effortlessly interesting, particularly the blustery Rispoli. Heard also takes what’s essentially a 1960’s version of the manic pixie dream girl but makes sure that if you turn away for just a second, you may miss glimpses of a fractured girl hoping to be nurtured.
“Rum Diary” does have a through-line story that reaches a conclusion, but it’s also comfortable taking its time with tangents for its characters to play around in. Involving nights of hard drinking, cockfights, skinny dipping, fire breathing and a hilarious moment of improvisation involving a broken down car, “Diary” has no shortage of interesting ideas on display. It’s what makes the first half of the movie sing. Just a little over half way, however, it’s what begins to weigh it down. When the stakes are being raised and the film really needs to snap, it occasionally puts itself back on hold to hang out for a few more “interesting diversions,” making the once zippy proceedings feel overstuffed and eventually somewhat disinterested in itself.
Plodding second-half aside, the dialog in this film crackles the whole way through. Like good lyrics, characters’ playful rat-a-tat and inspired reactions and exclamations are a pleasure to take in. It’s also to note that while binge drinking and hallucinogenic drugs do briefly come into play, this film is not so much of the wackadoo, “Fear and Loathing” variety. And fittingly so as this story comes from a time when Thompson himself was only beginning to discover his voice.
Adapting two hour films from books, hundreds of pages deep, is no easy trick. When filmmakers pull it off you can end up with a story benefited with especially rich, developed characters. Hang on to too many of the wrong things, though, as interesting as they may be, and you can end up with a film that feels lost and overstuffed. “The Rum Diary” is somewhere in the middle. Like a bottle rocket, it has a quick, instant propulsion that’s invigorating. But before long it suddenly sputters until it eventually flickers out. It’s definitely an enjoyable romp but the tagline on the poster itself says it all, “Absolutely nothing in moderation.”