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The Rum Diary not very intoxicating
Johnny Depp is not a pirate. A simple fact, but he seems to forget that at times. To Depp fans’ delight (and four-year-old Captain Jack fans’ chagrin), his work in The Rum Diary returns the actor to the world of author Hunter S. Thompson, whom Depp craftily portrayed in the cult favorite Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. The Rum Diary, an adaptation of Thompson’s novel of the same name, is a fitting tribute to Thompson’s work, but its sluggish plot progression and burdensome editing stretch what should be a concise adventure-comedy into a vapid two-hour feature.
Depp stars as Paul Kemp, a 1960s freelance journalist with a fondness for booze. After a hungover interview, Kemp lands a job at a Puerto Rican newspaper, where he takes on light stories, such as interviewing obese Americans who spend their days in a bowling alley. Then he comes across Sanderson (Aaron Eckhart), a charismatic real-estate tycoon (or, as Kemp would say, a “bastard”) who wants Kemp to write some fluff pieces to minimize the controversy surrounding his hotel construction plans.
Kemp may have an insatiable appetite for cigarettes and alcohol, but as a journalist, he values nothing more than truth. After getting bailed out by Sanderson following a binge of 470-proof moonshine, Kemp becomes indebted to the businessman’s agenda, but he still spends the rest of the movie digging deeper into the hotel scheme.
While the plot is necessary to steer the movie forward, The Rum Diary really exists to show off a chain of unconnected Thompson-esque events. In one scene, Kemp and his photographer roommate Bob Salas (Michael Rispoli) go to a hermaphrodite witch doctor to prepare their rooster for a vicious cockfight. At another point, Salas and Kemp buy hallucinogens from their other boozed-out roommate, and a Fear and Loathing-style acid trip ensues. In a running sub-plot, Kemp falls for Sanderson’s playful girlfriend Chenault (Amber Heard), and a classic love-triangle conflict ensues.
The Rum Diary’s pace is where the movie tumbles. The film’s central plot is really just a device to transport the characters from one ridiculous adventure to the next. This isn’t a bad strategy, but by trying to capture the essence of Thompson in these brief non-sequiturs, the film finds itself too far off-track to keep an audience engaged. The simple solution would have been to reduce the movie to a more palatable length, but director Bruce Robinson’s unwillingness to cut scenes will have audiences fixated on their watches for the final third of the film.
Depp’s performance is entertaining as usual, but compared to Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Kemp doesn’t have much in the way of dialogue and voice-overs. The movie’s best moments occur when Kemp interacts with the ridiculous cast of characters, including the bipolar newspaper editor (Richard Jenkins), his incessantly-drunk roommate Moberg (Giovanni Ribisi), and the slew of Americans pouring into Puerto Rico.
In the end, The Rum Diary will please Fear and Loathing fans who would like to see Depp’s antics in a tropical setting, but the film excludes a key element of Thompson—his raw, spontaneous nature. Still, Kemp is a delightful character that Depp nails from the get-go, and if the film is viewed as a tribute to Thompson, it’s hard to feel completely let down by some extraneous scenes. Or maybe the key to enjoying this movie is right there in the title. Just stay away from that 470-proof stuff. Not even Thompson could handle that.