Starring: Johnny Depp, Aaron Eckhart, Michael Rispoli, Amber Heard, Richard Jenkins, Giovanni Ribisi, Amaury Nolasco.
Distributor: Twentieth Century Fox
Runtime: 120 mins. Reviewed in Mar 2012
The Rum Diary is a memorable, idiosyncratic film which gives interesting insight into theCaribbean island of Puerto Rico in the late 50s, and the early career of Hunter S Thompson, the American journalist and author (The Rum Diary, Fear and Loathing in Los Vegas) whose approach to his work gave rise to the term ‘gonzo’ journalism.
Johnny Depp plays Paul Kemp, a journalist suffering writer’s block in flight from New York, who wakes with a hangover in ahotel in Puerto Rico, before meeting his new boss, Lotterman (Richard Jenkins), the cantankerouseditor of the English-language newspaper, The San Juan Star, which is in the grip of a crippling strike.
Paul is hired to write a column on astrology and report on tourism, and is quickly befriended by fellow journo Sala (Michael Rispoli), who suggests he leave his luxury hotel and move in with him. Sala’s lodgings are squalid, and include having to share space with Moberg (Giovanni Ribisi), an ex-journo with a Hitler fetish whose brain is pickled with alcohol.
Paul soon adapts and begins to feel at home living the rum-soaked, dissolute life of an ex-pat. But one moonlit night at sea he falls in love with Chantelle (Amber Heard), the fiancée of a go-getting property-entrepreneur, Sanderson (Aaron Ekhardt).Only then does Paul have niggling doubts about the path his life is taking.
With excellent performances from all the key players, The Rum Diaryis beautifully filmed and colourfully evokes Puerto Rico in the late 1950s through dialogue, costumes,décor and manners in much the same way as Mad Men captures the ad-men of Madison Avenue on the cusp of change in the 1960s.
When Paul arrives in 1960, Puerto Rico is in a tourist-driven property boom ripe for the picking,but scriptwriter/director Robinson’s social critique is never laboured, and makes its mark almost incidentally. Sanderson sees the personable, impeccably groomed Paul as a kindred spirit who can be bribed with a bright red racing car to write articles favouring business deals which will give him and his cronies the green light to make ‘seas of money’ through the cheap appropriation of prime waterfront land.
The land sharks circling Puerto Rico’s emerging economy have a simple view of dissidence: ‘Liberals are communists masquerading as liberals, speaking with Negro voices’, says one suit-clad businessman. This hints at the early successes of Civil Rights Movement and the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba yet to come.
But as Paul struggles to find love and his journalistic voice through a haze of alcohol and drugs (one scene paying poetic homage to the liberating power of LSD), politics gives way to biography proper, making The Rum Diary a prequel and fitting testament to Hunter Thompson’s stellar career as one of the hippie generation’s most loved and revolutionary figures.
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