The Rum Diary
by Kylah Magee
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At the Austin Film Festival premiere of The Rum Diary, the presenter introduced Johnny Depp as an actor capable of perfectly combining comedy and fear. That’s precisely what Depp skillfully executes in this film based on the novel by Hunter S. Thompson. Not only Depp, but the entire cast, is effective in this story of struggling writers, alcoholic binges, experimental drug use and greedy businessmen. Bruce Robinson creates a morality tale in which the main character is tested then has to decide where exactly he fits in.
Journalist Paul Kemp (Depp) has relocated to Puerto Rico to write for an American newspaper in San Juan. He is immediately accepted by his fellow rum drinking journalists (Michael Rispoli and Giovanni Ribisi) and is introduced to the life of squalor that they, and many other Puerto Ricans in the early 1960s, endure on the island. He soon finds himself courted by a man named Sanderson (Aaron Eckhart) and a group of American investors who persuade him to write articles that “assimilate contradictory points of view” in order to gain support for their development projects. To Sanderson, Puerto Rican land is a gold mine, stating, “those who get it, get the gold.” Soon Kemp begins to fall for Sanderson’s girlfriend (Amber Heard) and starts to question the work he’s agreed to be a part of.
A persistent theme in The Rum Diary is the idea of ownership with the juxtaposition of those who have a great deal and those who have nothing. Kemp has no home. He is forced to move in with Salas (Rispoli) and Moburg (Ribisi), fellow writers at The San Juan Star. He has no car. He has no woman. He confesses when asked about his writing that he has no voice. He spends his time composing fake horoscopes for pay and drinking rum with his boozy coworkers. When asked to write influential and biased articles for the American investors, Kemp gets a glimpse of a more glamorous life: private beaches, stylish cars, elegant homes, fancy yachts and a beautiful woman. Kemp underestimates himself when he agrees to work for the wrong side.
The Rum Diary has a number of amusing scenes, many of which use the same comedy found in Robinson’s 1987 film Withnail & I. I often found myself asking, “Was I supposed to laugh at that?” I enjoyed the simple romantic storyline that never takes center stage but helps direct Kemp in some of the decisions he has to make. Robinson’s direction is entirely focused on Kemp and every image or moment influences the judgments Kemp makes at the end of the film.
The main idea here is that writer Paul Kemp is searching for his voice. It’s gone because he hasn’t decided where he belongs. His fellow journalists are drunks, something he has in common with them yet Kemp often seems out of his league, finding himself in way over his head with the crazy adventures and experimentation. While he envies Sanderson, Kemp proves to be too trustworthy for that life. But until Kemp realizes which world he belongs to, he will never find his voice.
Kylah Magee received an MA in film studies from Chapman University and a music degree from Texas State. She has worked with the LA Film Festival and the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas. She currently works as a researcher for a bestselling writing team in Austin, TX.
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