To say that Bruce Robinson’s The Rum Diary was an unfocused mess would be implying that it left me with some sort of feeling after leaving the theater.
Pathos is a movie’s strongest weapon, and I tend to ascertain the success of a film by also analyzing the way it makes me feel as opposed to just the structural elements of it. Does the film make me happy? Sad? Scared? Does it invoke laughter, intentional or otherwise? Does it provide the viewer with a mirror, through which they can look at what they are watching and see some part of themselves that was lost, or maybe some part that needs to be found? Does it even disgust? I, myself, would count being thoroughly repulsed by a film a modicum of success, despite the obvious unpleasant consequences, because it means that that disgust is felt. So I am surprised to say that, when the credits rolled on The Rum Diary, I felt nothing. Nothing at all. Unless, of course, you count disappointment.
The film is a collected assortment of competing fragments, most of which are not competent in their own right and certainly don’t mesh into a whole, composite cinematic experience. Should it be characterized as a buddy comedy? A love story? A political drama? Or even a lavishly visual representation of the wonders and vices of Puerto Rico in the 1950s? It is all of these, and also none of them. So then, which fragments are we supposed to take seriously? The true message of the movie was never really conveyed, and left for a frustrating, even disorienting state of mind in the viewer.
Chief among the film’s letdowns is Johnny Depp’s muted performance as Paul Kemp, the erstwhile partying, thrill-seeking American lout who suddenly turns into a crusading journalist when the film requires it of him. Depp’s usual zany, witty charm is missing-in-action; instead he meanders through each scene with a deadpan assuredness, as if he has seen all there is to see and is merely going through the motions one more time. Admittedly, I am not that familiar with the life and works of Hunter S. Thompson, the real-life journalist upon which Kemp is thinly based and also the author of the novel that the movie itself is an adaptation of, but regretfully, because of Depp, I really have no desire to be either.
The film really turned me off, though, by its refusal to seriously administer its grievances at a level apropos to their importance. In fact, after watching it, I realized that I have always taken for granted a movie’s ability to authentically convey its issues with gravitas and meaning. The Rum Diary, though, assigns its themes of greed and distrust with the same substance as its themes of alcohol swilling and beach babe gazing. What exactly does it say when the protagonist of your film, after multiple such reckless escapades, is confronted with many moral issues, a majority of which are still socially relevant today, and then follows them with more boozing, drug-taking, and general debauchery? If Kemp had been portrayed as being aloof to the problems presented to him while engaging in his bad behavior, then the movie might have been on to something. Instead, for most of the movie, he ambivalently and nonchalantly resigns himself to become part of the problem, despite half-heartedly reminding the audience of his supposed allegiance to his cause with occasional discourses denouncing authority. The result, in a similar fashion to every scene featuring a blustery, woefully miscast Richard Jenkins as Kemp’s editor, is numbing.
I did, begrudgingly, appreciate some aspects of the film. The supporting performances, mostly, were good when viewed in their own merit. Depp and Michael Rispoli do project an affable chemistry that might have been downright funny in another movie. Giovanni Ribisi is nigh unrecognizable as a man too far gone in his own excess, a man eerily similar to how Kemp himself might appear if he doesn’t control his own destructive urges. He imbues his character with just enough foolishness to make him unlikable, just enough futility to make him empathetic, and just enough comic timing to form an amusing, but horribly out of place, comedic triumvirate with Depp and Rispoli. (Although, what’s with the Hitler on vinyl? Seriously, Bruce Robinson?). Amber Heard does her sultry best as the love interest for Depp, although her presence provides the weakest subplot for the film as I doubt the story would change much if she wasn’t in it.
One performance did shine above all the rest, and is certainly the only one relevant within the context of the “serious” side of the film. Believe in Aaron Eckhart people, for he is one of the more underrated actors working in the business today. He gives passion and even relatability to what could have been a generic role, much like he did with the crusading district attorney Harvey Dent in The Dark Knight. Instead of being merely slimy, he gives the corrupt businessman Sanderson a sense of rage-filled entitlement that can also be found when we as people look into the uncomfortable parts of our own souls.
But, so what? I myself find it hard to do some soul-searching while watching Rispoli’s character’s tongue stretch and dangle out of his mouth as viewed by Kemp in a drug-induced hallucination. Off-putting, to say the least. Unfortunately, that about sums up The Rum Diary. Even near the end (spoiler alert, I guess) when Kemp finds his “voice” and decides to actually address the issues given to him throughout his stay in Puerto Rico, Depp gives him the charisma of a wax figure as he resolutely decides to nail the “bastards” of the world. Then he leaves for America, with a title card explaining that he became an author and married the love interest. The end. Huh? Am I missing something here? Was the film really about Kemp’s personal journey all along? The Rum Diary has no such answers. It is, instead, a maddeningly inconsistent film whose decent parts make for a terrible whole and whose message is constantly muddied and unclear by its own refusal to accept the seriousness of its supposed message.