The Rum Diary (2011) - Can't Stop the Movies
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The Rum Diary (2011)

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When I saw Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas back in '97, it changed me. What was billed as a drug-fueled comedy was, in actuality, a cynical stab at the rise of consumer culture and the death of the American Dream. I waited almost 15 years to see what I hoped would be the spiritual sequel to that film, but despite what I assume were everyone's best intentions, instead we got The Rum Diary.

The Rum Diary follows aspiring writer Paul Kemp (Johnny Depp)on his misadventures through the corruption and greed of 1950's Puerto Rico. In his journeys he sees the American Dream corrupted by an American businessman (Aaron Eckhart) and his girlfriend (Amber Heard), and an apathetic newspaper editor (Richard Jenkins). Along for the ride are are sleezey photographer Sala (Michael Rispoli) and the completely degenerate Moberg (Giovanni Ribisi) who show Kemp that the path of self-discovery and the path of self-destruction go hand-in-hand.

Johnny Depp reprises his role as one of Thompson's half fictionalized, half biographical characters, though this time with considerable more restraint (and fewer drugs) than in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. I'll admit that I love seeing Depp as this fictionalized version of Thompson. He clearly has a deep respect for the man and it comes through in his performance. And while he turns in a pretty enjoyable performance, it's the story itself that seems to be lacking.

Make a joke involving Capt. Jack Sparrow and an absence of rum at your own peril.

What made Fear and Loathing so wonderful was Depp's narration, bringing life to Thompson's wit and rage. Aside from a few scenes, it is oddly absent in The Rum Diary. Without Kemp's observations and insights, the film lacks personality. Kemp seems less like he's angry with the world and more like a drunk who's just drifting aimlessly between each goofy experience.

There is something to be said for letting the scenes speak for themselves, and if it were any other film, I'd respect that. But with Thompson, who's passion is very much grounded in his use of language, it feels a bit dry. It makes the scenes with narration (all two of them) really stand out. Had the added more of Kemp's inner monologue over the film, it would have felt less detached and far more interesting.

Another problem is that the film itself felts aimless. It drifts between plots without ever really committing to any particular one. It starts off being about the terrible newspaper Kemp writes for, but eventually we abandon that plot and get roped into a crooked real-estate scam. Does Kemp still work for the paper? Is he still paid? I suppose he does because when the newspaper is finally shut down near the end of the film, Kemp seems pretty pissed despite it not mentioning it for most of the film.

Oh, no! There's goes Tokyo!

Similarly, the real-estate scam also sort of peters-out. There's some talk of Kemp and Sala being wanted by the police, some sort of legal trouble that they're in, but nothing ever comes of it. Aside from a lot of talk about how they're wanted by the cops, Kemp and Sala don't seem to alter their lives much if at all. If they were going for a more downbeat ending that tried to illustrate that despite their good intention, our heroes were just unable to affect any real change in the world, I could respect that. But they couldn't even do that right because just before the credits roll we get a cheesy "This is only the beginning of the story" message that I can only assume was an attempt to force a happy ending upon us.

As I said before, I can respect Depp for wanting to make this film; for wanting to honor the life and work of Hunter S. Thompson. Unfortunately, The Rum Diary lacks the wit and fire of Thompson's work and as a tribute. Though it isn't with out it's charm, it ultimately feels like a half-assed attempt to recapture both the madcap antics and the biting social commentary of Fear and Loathing, but it doesn't really capture either.

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Posted by Jacob

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  1. Boasts a highly impressive cast and contains some great touches, but it’s too long by a half hour and meanders severely in its second half. Nice review.

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