Autobiographical films are generally only as intriguing as the person they’re based upon. With notoriously rebellious writer Hunter S. Thomson at the heart of The Rum Diary, one would expect an equally wild and reckless romp through Puerto Rican culture. Sadly that’s not the case here, and while the characters are appropriately deranged, the debacles they wade through are often padded with drawn out escapades that end in depressing reality over riotous antics. At least Thompson’s surrogate Paul Kemp has his epiphany and seems to understand the profound connection between the starving children scavenging in the streets and the money-grubbing capitalists exploiting the land. Too bad he doesn’t let us in on his revelation.
Based on the experiences of renowned journalist Hunter S. Thomson, The Rum Diary follows Paul Kemp (Johnny Depp) during his time in San Juan, Puerto Rico where the newspaper reporter must contend with bizarre colleagues, debauched businessmen and unending nights of intoxication. While writing for a publication on the brink of collapse, Kemp bonds with booze-loving photographer Sala (Michael Rispoli) and drug-addled columnist Moburg (Giovanni Ribisi) and is soon approached by investment big shot Sanderson (Aaron Eckhart) to participate in a shady property scheme. But Kemp has his eyes set on Sanderson’s sultry girlfriend Chenault (Amber Heard) and endless evenings of inebriation.
The Rum Diary isn’t an incomprehensible mess, but it is a collection of drug and alcohol fueled misadventures that essentially lead nowhere. It might as well be ungraspable for all the pointless activities going on, especially with a conclusion that emphasizes the fractional nature of the story. In fact, had it followed a less linear, more visually outrageous path, it could have amounted to a more rewarding, creative and untamed venture in the same vein as films it is stylistically and/or thematically reflecting – the works of Gilliam (Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas in particular), Kubrick, Aronofsky, and the theatrical adaptations of Charles Bukowski’s writing. The only truly interesting fragment of the film is the idea that it sometimes takes unusually crazy mishaps to inspire writers to find their voice. Bad decisions and bad company are influenced by unnamed hallucinogens and never-ending rum, stimulating Kemp into unveiling the corruption, politics and unbalanced distribution of wealth in Puerto Rico.
Unfortunately, the audience isn’t given much of an opportunity to sympathize with the poverty-stricken locals, or to loathe the excesses and crookedness of the rich – and Kemp isn’t even granted an onscreen victory. The focus seems to be on Depp’s facial twitches, low, trailing off voice and fleeting expressions, and the eccentricities of his supporting players. Rispoli, Jenkins and Ribisi are stupendous in their roles, delivering multilayered dialogue, double entendres, cynicism and deep observations on the unprintable qualities of easily ignored truths. The acting all around is sensational. Humor finds its way into the majority of the screenplay while romance is hinted at and adventure is dabbled in, but many will disapprove of the movie ending without an ending.
– The Massie Twins (GoneWithTheTwins.com)