Depp channels Thompson in wandering tale of excess and corruption
The Rum Diary, based on the early Hunter S. Thompson novel, takes a searing look at excess and corruption in Puerto Rico in 1960. Johnny Depp stars as Paul Kemp, a journalist who travels to the island to write for a failing newspaper. Paul is a go-with-the-flow kind of guy who’s not out to mix up anything but a cocktail. He becomes fast friends with Bob Sala (Michael Rispoli), a photographer for the paper who is equally embedded in the alcoholic lifestyle on the island. He also befriends Moberg (Giovanni Ribisi) a thoroughly burnt out writer who is even more dysfunctional and insightful.
Soon, Paul is taken in by business bigwig Sanderson (Aaron Eckhart), and learns how to live the good life of fast cars and private beaches. But the business dealings are shady and the corruption and moral compromise required reawaken Paul’s fighting spirit. He changes paths and decides that, instead of joining the island’s sleazy elite, he’s going to take the bastards down.
Depp brings a natural humor to the role that really works. He’s not trying to be funny, he’s just in character and the things the character does or says happen to be funny. He’s able to play a drunken Paul with wit and cleverness. He doesn’t stumble around or slur his words like the movie drunks we’re used to seeing. Instead, his drunkenness makes him reveal his inner dialogue or true intentions, which provides a humorous aside in the story.
The film is also gorgeous, from the stars to the scenery. Both Depp and Amber Heard, who plays Sanderson’s fiancée Chenault, look tan and spectacular. The beaches are colorful and the costumes, designed by Colleen Atwood, add a stylish layer to the visual beauty.
Depp’s personality and the rich atmosphere make the film engaging despite a storyline that seems to wander drunkenly through the surf. Characters are introduced and, while they are well played, many seem to serve no real purpose in the plot. Paul undergoes a transformation, but it’s sometimes hard to see how or why. He begins as a drunk who doesn’t really care about anything and ends up as a drunk who suddenly cares about journalism and bringing the truth to the people, but there aren’t a lot of critical scenes that show us why he has this change of heart.
Surely hard core Thompson fans will enjoy the film and its gonzo message, though average audiences might find it hard to get to the meat of the story. Depp is always entertaining, and The Run Diary is no different, but aside from watching Paul interact with the colorful characters on the island, there’s not a lot going on here. As one of my Facebook friends said, “you have to be a huge fan of Hunter S. Thompson to swallow this tale.”