Judging by movies opening this year about journalists and other writers, including The Bang Bang Club and now The Rum Diary and to some degree Anonymous, one might be led to assume that we’re all a bunch of rowdy, drunken party animals. And then wonder how the actual journalism ever manages to get done.
In that regard, The Rum Diary won’t provide much of a clue. Johnny Depp, somewhat reprising his tipsy Pirates clown in the present, returns once again to the Caribbean. But this time stumbling about as the late famed, perpetually inebriated bad boy journalist, Hunter S. Thompson.
As the background story has been related by Depp, upon visiting his longtime friend Thompson in the 1990’s, he came upon an unpublished semi-autobiographical novel stashed away about Thompson’s early years unsuccessfully pursuing a career as a newspaper reporter in Puerto Rico in the 1960s. And urged the less than enthused writer to make a film about it. Which has apparently come to fruition now, six years following Thompson’s death in 2005.
Depp is Paul Kemp in The Rum Diary, a twentysomething aspiring journalist who arrives in San Juan after being accepted at an English language newspaper that’s in its death throes. With the readership demographic limited to tourists and wealthy US carpetbagger land developers, and the local population in the streets just outside protesting gringo occupation, what’s a frustrated mostly idle news staff (Michael Rispoli, Giovanni Ribisi) to do. Except go clubbing and boozing day and night to make sense of it all.
Which is exactly what Kemp has in mind. That is, until approached by unscrupulous speculator millionaire Sanderson (Aaron Eckhart). Who presents him with a Faustian bargain to write puff pieces about his business scam to build a mega-resort on a Puerto Rican island also housing a US military bomb testing base (Vieques?). And Kemp doesn’t initially shy away from morphing into a corrupted journalist, while distracted by the seductive moves of Sanderson’s flirty forbidden fruit young girlfriend, Chenault (Amber Heard).
Kemp is eventually miffed by the moral decay of Sanderson and his imperialist crony swells. And with the implication by UK director Bruce Robinson (Withnail & I, Fat Man And Little Boy, The Killing Fields) that this formative experience was key to Thompson’s subsequent reign at Rolling Stone as the uniquely subversive, subjectively fueled ‘gonzo’ journalist in the making.
But how Thompson/Kemp managed to evolve in this way – especially through the haze of those LSD laced cocktails and with Depp’s consistently laid back performance – is never quite logically established in the course of this story. Though he does get to spout some Thompson-inspired gems, as when referring to the colonialist history of genocide and more recent US incursion on the island: ‘We killed everybody, then brought in Jesus like a bar of soap.’
Also of note, is the release right now of a number of anti-capitalist themed movies, simultaneously with Occupy Wall Street breaking out all over the country. And including The Rum Diary along with Margin Call, Trespass and Tower Heist. And the irony of rich people who would appear to be maligning themselves, while financing these movies.
The Film District
2 1/2 stars