The Rum Diary, directed by Bruce Robinson, follows journalist Paul Kemp (Johnny Depp) who travels to Puerto Rico to escape the American life. Here, he starts writing for a run-down newspaper, The San Juan Star, with stressed-out editor Lotterman (Richard Jenkins), fellow journalist Bob Sala (Michael Rispoli) and office drunk Moburg (Giovanni Ribisi). After disagreements with his boss, Kemp picks up his own habit of drinking rum and falls in love with the beautiful Chenault (Amber Heard), fiancée of businessman Sanderson (Aaron Eckhart). But will a proposition from Sanderson pull Kemp away from backstreet cockfights and into a life of luxury and private beaches? It seems unlikely when the proposition revolves around exploiting the island, something which Kemp has already found inspiration for his writing in.
Based on a novel by American journalist Hunter S. Thompson, The Rum Dairy was written in the early 1960s but it wasn’t published until 40 years later. It took nine years for the film adaptation to get off the ground, which began filming in 2009, and then another two years for it to reach our cinema screens. In total, it took 51 years in lag time for the film’s release this month. To Thompson’s dismay, the film regretfully suffers from reflecting upon this lengthy process, becoming a drag itself.
The Rum Diary is director Robinson’s first film in 19 years. Whilst the film is visually attractive, with a lot of the focus on the 1950s Caribbean setting, the film is also quite dark. Some parts of the film make you laugh, all of which can be seen in the trailer, but in between the pretty backdrops and humour derived from Depp, the story is dull and deeply uninteresting. I expected a light-hearted, tropical drama about a journalist who drinks a lot of rum, but this isn’t what I got.
I haven’t read The Rum Diary book, so it was easy to be wrong in my expectations. But when discussing the film on Twitter John Riley told me that, “The book is short, light and breezy.” Yet the book is quite the opposite. As opposite as you can get, actually. It wasn’t short, in fact the 120 minute run time seemed double that, and it definitely wasn’t breezy.
This is the only film with Johnny Depp as the lead in that I haven’t enjoyed, yet Depp has starred in another of Thompson’s novel adaptations too. Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas was directed by Terry Gilliam and released in 1998. Here he played the cynical Raoul Duke, who is often the main character and narrator of Thompson’s stories and novels. Obviously, Depp was the right choice for the role, even though the novel’s character is some 20 years younger, and he portrayed his character proficiently. Unfortunately, the story around him was so uneven that even Depp couldn’t help pull it off.
One of the main weaknesses in the film was the use of Chenault’s character. John comments that: “For some reason, though many of the details are blurry, I always remember the book’s initial description of her, ‘She had a hard little body and a way of walking that indicated a mass of stored up energy.’ In the book, she’s clearly portrayed as a tease.” Whilst the film reflects on this well enough, it is also quick to forget about her character at the end of the film. She flirts and teases throughout, but after coming close to finally bedding Kemp, she isn’t seen again until briefly being mentioned in the epilogue.
As John continues, “It’s a flaw of the book that she’s less a character in herself than an object of desire and exchange to all the male characters.” And maybe that’s the only reason we need to why we don’t see more of her. If she was purely an object of desire, her character isn’t important when her teasing has stopped and she falls for Kemp in return. But whilst that makes great literature, the film needed to see more of this lust and it needed to end with romance. For that reason alone, she didn’t serve as an important character in the film, losing her integrity and thus closing the film unsuccessfully.
As John Riley proposes, “I might skip the film and keep my memories of the novel.” I’d suggest waiting until the film’s DVD release and giving this a rent, but I wouldn’t push it any further than that.
*Thanks to John Riley for helping with my discussion of the film in relation to the book, greatly appreciated.*