I walked away from watching The Rum Diary with feelings as dichotomous as the two halves of the film. The first half is what the film appears to be in the trailers, while the second is a fairly serious take on corruption and the censorship of news by those who control what is printed. Neither part is entirely satisfying, for differing reasons, and the two halves hang together rather awkwardly.
The opening half of the film makes it seem as though the goal is to be Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas Lite. Unfortunately, the approach doesn’t work despite the copious amounts of rum and quips. None of the characters here are presented with the true and simple strangeness of those in Fear and Loathing. Instead we have actors who been given Thompson’s hallmark one-liners but don’t know what to do with the words. The slick and pithy lines are delivered awkwardly, without any real conviction; the actors speak the words because that is what the script says the character says next. The result is that Thompson’s incisive cynicism comes out as non sequiturs rather than accidental brilliance.
Of all the characters, Johnny Depp’s Paul Kemp is probably the most normal, but the bizarreness of the other people we meet is expressed not in their personalities but in their mentalities.
While playing the straight man might be a stretch for Depp these days, his character felt needlessly inscrutable to me. I saw Kemp doing a lot of things but could never quite grasp onto who he was. Perhaps this is intentional–one of the themes of the film is about a man finding his own voice and convictions, so a half-formed character might be foreshadowing.
Aaron Eckhart was too brash as Sanderson. He plays the swindling developer with charisma but no suaveness. I think (based on Kemp’s reactions) that the moments where he bursts into violent emotion or rhetoric are meant to be shocking turns you would never have expected from that character, but instead they are so in keeping with the rest of his behavior that you wonder how he has managed to fool anyone.
There are a couple moments of true hilarity in the first half, particularly a car sequence that is right up there with the “Lookin’ Out My Back Door” scene from The Big Lebowski. In a way it was a fitting culmination of the first half that the funniest part should happen right before the film takes its turn for the serious.
That happens perhaps halfway through, when Kemp uncovers a plot to despoil an untouched island paradise. There, at last, we begin the real story; the hour-plus leading us to that point was a meandering introduction. The second act introduces more complications and lead Kemp to his breaking point. Events quickly come to a head in the final act, and what resolution is reached—fair warning, it is not a tidy one the way so much of Hollywood likes—comes sooner than expected.
I don’t want to call this rather quick ending a pacing problem, because events seem to move at a natural speed, and I think to have spent more time on them would have been a mistake. So I must again refer to the extended first act whose mood bears little resemblance to the compressed action and stakes of the second and third acts as a split personality problem.
I don’t know how many of the film’s story and tonal shift problems can be laid at the feet of Thompson’s novel. The book was his first, and if it can be supposed to be somewhat autobiographical, then Kemp is the avatar for Thompson, and the novel is about Thompson finding his voice as a writer the same way that Kemp does on screen. The plot may be just as uneven, as hard to find in the beginning and as quick to conclude in the end. The characters may be just as empty, talking heads who say pretty things but all speak in the voice of Thompson and not themselves, and as morally bankrupt as the people they purport to fight. The film may, in fact, be too faithful an adaptation of the book—these criticisms resemble what I know of Thompson’s MO as an author.
Some of the political references felt heavy handed. Both the snippets from the past (the film is set in 1960) that proved “prophetic”—such as Kemp commenting that “they’ll never let him live” about Kennedy and that someday America will elect a president who makes Nixon seem left-wing—and the more modern parallels of greed and exploitation of the locals and the rich men bragging about paying nothing in taxes were highlighted just a little too much for my tastes. Those themes would have been self-evident without an obvious nudge from the director for the audience to take note of them.
On the positive side, there were a lot of cool old cars and some pretty fabulous dresses—the film did a pretty great job of recreating Puerto Rico in 1960.
The Rum Diary is not terrible, but there is not really anything special about it in the filming or the acting or the editing, either. I spent the first half feeling vaguely uncomfortable because the characters seemed so awkward, but the second half—the serious half—kept me engaged and invested in a way that I was surprised by, after that beginning. If you are expecting what the trailers make it out to be, you’ll probably be disappointed; if you are looking for a more serious Issue film with comedic elements, this one might work for you.