Like its intoxicating namesake, The Rum Diary is a sweet spirit with subtle flavors. It has also aged remarkably well.
Mermaids and Rum
The works of the late Hunter S. Thompson, the author of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and one of Colorado’s most enigmatic personalities, is not for all tastes. But there’s something undeniably timeless – and timely – about his work, especially The Rum Diary. Written way back in 1959, it took some 40 years for his peckish novel to finally make it into print.
In The Rum Diary, intrigue surrounds dubious real estate deals, duplicitous banks, a bankrupt newspaper, and the collapse of the American dream.
The movie is set in 1960 San Juan, Puerto Rico, but it could very easily have been set in any modern day American territory; just throw a dart at a map of the U.S. to find the new location. Swap out references to Roberto Clemente for Ivan Rodriguez and it’s good to go.
That’s impressive, particularly given Thompson’s unconventional writing habits and style. As an added bonus, with all the talk of rum, mermaids, and witch doctors – and with Johnny Depp as the main protagonist – it feels something like a thematic precursor to Pirates of the Caribbean. Heck, it also covers ground similar to The Hangover, but with much better taste and much, much more class.
Depp was a friend of Thompson and starred in Terry Gilliam’s adaptation of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Here he plays Paul Kemp, a struggling writer who has written a couple unread novels and has taken a new job at a struggling newspaper in San Juan. The hope is he’ll revive the paper’s flagging status with some real journalism. In its current state, even the editor-in-chief, Lotterman (Richard Jenkins, Eat Pray Love), can’t stand to read the thing.
Grandiose ambitions aside, poor Paul first needs to cut his teeth and get a feel for the place. To do so, he is assigned to the all-important staple of the paper, the daily horoscope.
It doesn’t take long for Paul to surround himself with some interesting characters. There’s a grubby journalist named Sala (Michael Rispoli, Kick-Ass) and a suave PR guy named Sanderson (Aaron Eckhart, The Dark Knight). Sanderson’s girlfriend, the ultra-hot Chenault (played by the ultra-hot Amber Heard, Drive Angry), is Paul’s very own American dream.
But the guy who takes the cake is a total burn-out and a vision of Thompson’s future self, a scraggly, drug-addled writer named Moberg. Giovanni Ribisi (Public Enemies) is, at first, unrecognizable behind the peach fuzz, aviator sunglasses, and trench coat. Actually, Ribisi darn near steals the show whenever he’s on screen.
The Rum Diary isn’t a razzle-dazzle blockbuster. It’s a writer’s movie, a writer’s story. The razzle is in the ambitions of classic, old-school journalism. The dazzle is in the fantastic collection of characters.
Through his dealings with Sanderson, Paul stumbles on a story involving the seductiveness and dark side of the American dream. It’s quirky (and Cohen Brothers-esque), but tourists show up to enjoy the bowling and the duty free, and stay close to their own instead of venturing out to witness some of the inequity right outside the door. One person’s paradise found is another person’s paradise lost.
As a writer, it’s amusing to see Paul’s skills so highly in demand. The newspaper wants him to fight the good fight (or least that’s what Lotterman says). Sanderson wants him to put words together that sell the American dream.
But as Paul puts the pieces together, he finally finds his calling. At one point he says, “I don’t know how to write like me.” Thanks to all the underhandedness and shadiness of Paul’s Puerto Rican misadventures, he comes to see The Writer as a sort of super hero.
He smells bastards. He smells truth. He smells ink.
Go get ‘em, Paul.