The Rum Diary begins with a small plane flying toward a beautiful, lush Puerto Rico, with Dean Martin crooning over the soundtrack. Once the credits cease, the film inevitably jump cuts to a bloodshot Johnny Depp, awaking in a trashed hotel room, the result of one hell of a binder. This being a Bruce Robinson film based on a Hunter S. Thompson book, we’re pretty much exactly where we need to be.
The Rum Diary tells the tall tale of Paul Kemp, a failed novelist who travels to Puerto Rico for a halfass job at a halfass newspaper. The year is 1960. The riots rage. The booze flow. And the girls glow.
Kemp is soon courted by Sanderson (Aaron Eckhart, doing his cool, sexy Aaron Eckhart thing), an opportunist looking to open hotels on a deserted island. Kemp immediately takes a liking to Sanderson’s lady (Amber Heard), while separately befriending some of his fellow journos (Michael Rispoli and Giovanni Ribisi).
Halfway into The Rum Diary, I found myself mildly confused. Critics and bloggers alike have seemed apathetic toward the film, and I hadn’t a clue why. Its pacing was fast, its plot was convincing and its humor was wicked in that perfect Thompson way. Why then all the indifference?
The answer, I soon found, is rather simple. The Rum Diary is pretty much done after it’s reached its 90 minute mark, and unfortunately for the audience, there’s still a half hour left. What starts off as enjoyable turns into a lagging mess. It’s like the Energizer Bunny of boredom, like the co-worker you get stuck with in the hallway who won’t shut the hell up. Enough was enough, it’s just a shame Depp and company didn’t realize it.
The Rum Diary has been Depp’s passion project since Thompson, Depp’s great friend, took his own life. Nabbing Robinson as director seemed only appropriate. Robinson hasn’t made many films, but he is responsible for Withnail & I, the dingiest, filthiest, most exceptionally funny film I’ve ever seen about helpless alcoholics. Because of this credit, The Rum Diary isn’t a complete wash. As he proved in Fear and Loathing and Las Vegas and Alex Gibney’s Gonzo, no one reads Hunter S. Thompson better than Johnny Depp. As Kemp, Depp’s scenes of pulsating narration pierce right to the core of the film The Rum Diary wants to be.
So while you shouldn’t expect much from The Rum Diary, I feel like ending this on a good note.
Despite its faults, The Rum Diary contains one of the best, most depraved drunks I’ve seen, since, well, Richard E. Grant’s Withnail. As Moburg, Giovanni Ribisi is simply a revelation. Sporting a gravel voice and grime an inch thick, Ribisi is unrecognizable as the reprehensible Moburg. There is a scene in which Moburg describes in great, vivid detail how he would like to kill his boss. If there was room in the theater, I would’ve been rolling on the floor. Rarely does a film make me gasp for breath while streaming tears of laughter. It’s one of the funniest performances I’ve seen in a long time, shamefully hidden in an otherwise mediocre film. C-