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The Rum Diary movie poster

The Rum Diary: Movie Review

Genre: Adventure, Drama
Rated: R
Directed by: Bruce Robinson

Starring: Amber Heard, Johnny Depp, Aaron Eckhart, Giovanni Ribisi, Richard Jenkins
Released by: GK Films

In Short: At its best, "The Rum Diary" is an alcohol-fueled exploration of the dark side of expat life in 1950's Puerto Rico. Unfortunately, most of the wild-eyed irreverence of its source material is lost in a heavy-handed story of capitalist intrigue gone Caribbean.


Trouble in Hunter S. Thompson's Booze-Soaked Paradise

The last time we saw Gonzo journalist/part-time novelist/freelance pharmaceutical tester Hunter S. Thompson on the silver screen, he was deep in the throes of a drug-fueled bender through the underbelly of Sin City in the Terry Gilliam-helmed "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas." By comparison, "The Rum Diary," Thompson's latest novel to get the Tinseltown treatment, is a far more sobering affair. Trading in "Fear and Loathing's" harum-scarum hedonism and psychedelic horrors for a more conventional Hollywood plotline centered around a shady business proposition in booming 1950's Puerto Rico, the Bruce Robinson-directed effort is an occasionally compelling examination of corporate greed in the developing world, even if it ultimately fails to convey the wild-eyed irreverence of its source material.

Set behind the backdrop of the Cold War and the communist rumblings it sent reverberating across the Caribbean, "The Rum Diary" is not quite the drunken tropical romp that its title suggests. Based largely on the erratic writer's stint as a sports reporter for a Puerto Rican daily as a young man, Thompson's debauched tale follows American journalist Paul Kemp (played by Johnny Depp, who also starred in "Fear and Loathing") to the dark side of San Juan society — a world populated by drunken expats and carpetbagging American investors. Through Kemp's hazy, glazed-over eyes, the Puerto Rico we witness is not one of endless beach parties and bikinis (although there are a few of both), but of alcohol-nursed depression, racial tension and capitalist coercion.

Amber Heard and Johnny Depp in The Rum Diary Giovanni Ribisi, Johnny Depp and Michael Rispoli in The Rum Diary

At its best, "The Rum Diary" is able to relate this sense of disillusion and disenfranchisement in true Thompson fashion — with a stick-it-to-the-man attitude and plenty of drug-induced insanity. The rag-tag group of reporters who make up the staff of the San Juan Star — from the sweaty and satirical Sala (Michael Rispoli) to the derelict Moberg (Giovanni Ribisi) — are eminently watchable as they revel in their outsider status. Scenes of boozy bar fights and late-night narcotic paranoia and moonshine-fueled fire-breathing are instances of classic Gonzo hi-jinx — and are also the most fun that the film has to offer.

Unfortunately, director Robinson takes the ill-advised step of trying to rein in the madness that makes Thompson's book so enjoyable — and misses out on much of its understated (and often chemically-enhanced) complexity as a result. In place of Thompson's nuanced look at life on the fringe is a rather heavy-handed story of capitalist intrigue gone Caribbean — complete with a dazzling femme fatale (Amber Heard) and dashing devil in a Panama suit (Aaron Eckhart) — that often plays like "Wall Street" in a warmer climate. While the anti-imperialist, pro-proletariat subtext may be aiming to strike a chord in light of current world events, it really only acts as an encumbrance to what could have been a wild, weird and rum-filled ride of a movie. Early on in the film, Paul Kemp makes a rather reluctant claim that should have served as a harbinger for the comparatively sober story yet to come — "I intend to avoid alcohol...when I can." Boy, what a mistake.

Reviewed by Nick Winfrey


(Updated: 05/09/13 JDM)

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