JOHNNY Depp plays journalist Paul Kemp – a slightly-crazed American who moves to Puerto Rico – in The Rum Diary.
Puerto Rico. 1960. The sand is blindingly white, the water crystal clear, the rum cheap and flowing, and the paycheck fat. This is the world journalist Paul Kemp (Johnny Depp) enters when he touches down in San Juan at the beginning of The Rum Diary – the film adaptation of Hunter S. Thompson’s novel of the same name.
Not that we see his arrival. The film’s opening sequence skips ahead a little, greeting us with a vision of a dishevelled Kemp waking in a hotel room. Half-naked and with eyes bloodshot, Kemp stumbles over empty bottles to the window and defiantly opens the curtains.
And there it is. Crystal clear water. Blindingly white sand. A blinding, headache-inducing white.
Kemp, an American who has spent most of his youth travelling from one city to the next, has come to Puerto Rico to work on the English-language newspaper The San Juan Star. There he befriends photographer Bob Sala (Michael Rispoli) and – somewhat begrudgingly – the maniacal Moberg (Giovanni Risibi), who listens to Nazi records in his spare time.
In between drinking and being hounded by The Star’s beleaguered editor, Kemp becomes emotionally entangled with the glamorous fiancee of suave public relations man Hal Sanderson (Aaron Eckhart). Chenault (Amber Heard) has a mischievous nature and a dislike for formality that Sanderson can’t seem to keep in check, and the slightly unhinged Kemp presents as a perfect alternative.
Johnny Depp has certainly carved out a niche as the deranged yet charming drunk. First it was Raoul Duke in Fear and Loathing in Los Vegas (another Hunter S. Thompson adaptation), then Captain Jack Sparrow in the Pirates of the Caribbean films, and more recently, the Mad Hatter in the dark remake of Alice in Wonderland, though tea was his poison in that role.
Kemp, by contrast, is slightly more down to earth and relatable. That said, it’s hard to escape the feeling that Depp has too much of a heart-throb about him to play such a hopeless wanderer. This he disguised in Fear and Loathing with a bald cap and awkward bow-legged walk, and with the help of other costume pieces in similar roles. But with his good looks and swagger firmly on show in The Rum Diary, it’s not easy to feel much that sympathy for the tired, out-of-luck character Thompson’s novel first described.
Written and directed by Bruce Robinson, the film is interesting in that it touches on some of the earliest contrasts and conflicts between journalism and the relatively new field of public relations.
The shabby apartment Kemp ends up sharing with his newspaper colleagues is contrasted perfectly with Sanderson’s stylish, mid-century-modern beachside house. And as businessmen, Sanderson and Star editor Edward Lotterman (Richard Jenkins) could not be more different. While Sanderson is cashing in on the rapidly-developing tourist paradise, Lotterman is tearing his hair out trying to keep the paper afloat and whip alcoholic journalists into line. That, and trying to hold onto the attention of vacationing readers who are only interested in stories about new bowling alleys.
But this contrast could have been explored in greater depth. In fact, so loosely is Kemp’s identity as a news man established that when he eventually rallies his colleagues to save the failing newspaper, the audience’s hearts might not quite be in it.
This is often the way with novel-to-film adaptations. The skimming over of details and inevitable fast pace of the storyline can sometimes leave audiences feeling as though they’re coming along on an adventure they don’t quite understand. This is especially so in The Rum Diary, where the ruckus-filled lives of the characters are pretty fast paced to begin with.
It cannot be said that Robinson has done a good job of adapting the novel, but he has certainly done a good job of supplementing it. The film fills in life and colour in a way (sometimes) only a movie can. From the sexy Latin rhythms to the idyllic beaches, from Chennault’s beauty to the tacky but wonderfully retro hotels – The Rum Diary is certainly an entertaining feast for the senses.
And it’s funny. A sense of the absurd hangs over the whole film, and there are a few great moments of physical comedy – like when Sala drives past the cops in his door-less car, with Kemp on his lap.
But it is a movie that has, ultimately, been made to excite Thompson devotees and wannabe practitioners of Gonzo journalism (that is, the style of subjective, narrative journalism that Thompson is credited with inventing).
When it comes to everyone else – especially those who go to the cinema expecting a storyline – perhaps spend your money on a nice rum instead.