Sunday, February 5, 2012

The Rum Diary (2011)

Bruce Robinson's The Rum Diary is a story about a man trying to find his voice, even if nobody wants to hear it. The film, starring Johnny Depp, is based on a 1998 Hunter S. Thompson novel, which he actually wrote in the 1960s while working for a sports newspaper in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Thompson, who died in 2005, a journalist and author (he also wrote Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas -- a movie adaptation which Depp also starred in), battled alcoholism and drug addiction his entire life. His novel, "The Rum Diary," while fictional, is heavily influenced by his life experiences, including his journalistic outlook and the time he spent as a writer in Puerto Rico.

In the film, Depp plays Paul Kemp, a roving journalist who moves from the states to Puerto Rico in the 1950s to write for the San Juan Star, an English-language newspaper. We meet his editor, Edward Lotterman, played by Richard Jenkins, who assigns Kemp to write horoscopes, the most mundane of tasks for the new employee. One might expect Kemp to show some journalistic integrity, and demand a more ambitious task, but instead, he simply nods and contently accepts the role. In short, he just doesn't care.

The newspaper doesn't exactly scream competence, either. Lotterman warns Kemp right away that the last thing he needs is another drunk, since the newspaper is already chock-full of them, and warns Kemp to keep the drinking to a minimum. One of those employees who is partial to the booze is Bob Sala, played by Michael Rispoli, a photographer at the newspaper who takes Kemp under his wing, even lets him stay at his apartment, and more prominently, becomes his drinking buddy.

In Puerto Rico, Kemp is a fish out the water. Unable to even speak a lick of Spanish, he experiences a major culture clash upon his arrival. Though he left the states to escape the overwhelming presence of greed and corruption -- something as a journalist, he is undoubtedly exposed to -- , he soon discovers that Puerto Rico is not much different.

While temporarily staying in a small, grimy apartment with Sala, the two spend what little income they have on benders and booze. However, Kemp receives a opportunity to better his situation when he meets Hal Sandersson (Aaron Eckhart), an extremely wealthy businessman who doesn't exactly conduct his business in the most moral, or even legal ways.

Johnny Depp, Aaron Eckhart and Amber Heard
Sandersson, and his associates, recently learned through inside information that a private island, currently owned by the U.S., government, is going to be put up for lease. He wishes to purchase, what his associates call, "32 miles of untouched real estate" to build hotels and other mega tourist attractions. They want Kemp, as a writer, to sway public opinion through some carefully placed articles.

Sanderssonn, in a way, is living the American dream, only in Puerto Rico. Living in an illustrious beach side villa, with his gorgeous girlfriend, Chenault (Amber Heard), expensive cars and an endless flow of money. He is an expatriate, and has no qualms in tampering with land that he has no right to, which, only naturally, would place him in ill-favor with the natives. That is why he needs Kemp, who he is easily able to lure with the help of Chenault, some charm, and a nice car.

From then, we follow Kemp's escapades, which sometimes are ludicrous -- including him breathing fire into a policeman's face, and orally inducing "the most powerful drug in the history of narcotics," --, and at other times, the script, written by Robinson, is impressively profound and intelligent, with Oscar Wilde quotes, and deep philosophical statements about the state of journalism.

We learn the base of Kemp's need for drink; it's his lack of self-worth. He knows he has a voice, but he just can't find it. "I’ve been dragging a typewriter around with me for 10 years. I’ve written nothing," he tells Chenault. "I don’t know how to write like me.” But somewhere along the narrative, Kemp does find his voice, only to become discouraged when he can't find the proper outlet to voice it.

Michael Rispoli as Bob Sala in The Rum Diary
The wild, bizarre, and oddly endearing ride that Kemp finds himself in during The Rum Diary makes him a very fun character to live through vicariously for a couple of hours. Depp plays the part slyly and eloquently, although Rispoli may be the most memorable character of the bunch, portraying the raggedy, abrasive Bob Sala, at times even reminding you of a young Eli Wallach. But if Rispoli is abrasive, then Giovanni Ribisi, who plays the newspaper's religious correspondent, Moberg, is flat-out repugnant. Amber Heard meanwhile, simply exists to wave her hair and look pretty, which she does very, very well.

I think it's fair to say that Hunter S. Thompson's stint in Puerto Rico played an integral role in his life and career, and represented an eye-opening experience for him as a journalist. In a foreign land, he learns that nobody really wants to hear the truth. The Rum Diary conveys such, as Kemp learns the harsh reality of his profession, and it's harsh enough that the only way he could respond to it is with a swig of rum.

~ Review by Ddubbs

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