Johnny Depp once again perfectly manifests himself as gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson — this time incarnated as Paul Kemp, circa 1961 in Puerto Rico. As before, The Rum Diary focuses on the search for the “American dream,” alongside drug and alcohol-fueled shenanigans.
Kemp is an American journalist with a minor drinking problem and a serious lack of commitment — a character very true to the real Thompson.. He is also the only applicant for a potential job as a horoscope/lifestyle writer for a local paper in San Juan.
According to the perpetually-stressed editor of the newspaper, Edward Lotterman (Richard Jenkins), the main purpose of the San Juan Star is to make San Juan look attractive to tourists. As Kemp witnesses, the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico is mined as a tourist attraction, a place for investors to flourish at the expense of the local populace. Essentially, Kemp’s job is to write mind-numbing drivel that locals resent and American visitors will happily consume.
One of the most developed roles is Sala, a correspondent working for Lotterman at the San Juan Star. He is The Rum Diary’s equivalent of Benicio Del Toro’s Dr. Gonzo in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas — someone who drives the action, never without booze and illegal drugs. He is also particularly helpful for the audience, explaining some of the characters (which otherwise wouldn’t happen) and shows Kemp the rum-soaked ropes of Puerto Rico.
Among others at the paper, Sala is aware that the whole operation is going downhill, as it was only meant to be a foot in the door for the American presence. This is revealed right off the bat, as Kemp weaves his way through an ocean of once-employed locals who have been replaced with printing machines.
As the story unfolds, the audience feels the dangerously tense political atmosphere of the movie’s setting. One of the more credible things about The Rum Diary is this accurate portrayal of the relationship between Puerto Rico and its manipulative foreign investors at the start of the Cold War era.
One of Kemp’s wealthy acquaintances is an American named Sanderson (Aaron Eckhart), a businessman interested in building multiple hotels on the island and Kemp soon finds himself entwined in a lacklustre romance with Sanderson’s fiancée, Chenault. It’s never explained or revealed what her purpose is, other than to be arm-candy.
These two characters play vital roles in propelling the plot yet remain superficial and underdeveloped. Other than enjoying their privacy and fancy cars, not much is revealed about either of them in terms of motives. For an antagonist, Sanderson should have been more involved in the dialogue, as his character seemed far too stereotypical-corporate-tycoon to be a true Thompson creation.
Alongside Sanderson, two other minor moneybags attempt to swindle Kemp into writing vacation pamphlets. Thankfully, Depp can embody his character perfectly, and gets the audience to feel his discomfort in these reoccurring situations.
Surprisingly, neither Kemp nor any of his other self-destructive journalist comrades ever take the various opportunities to fight the misfortunes and insults they are dealt.
Along with this lack of resolution, the two-dimensional portrayals of Chenault and Sanderson leave the audience with unanswered questions. As the plot unravels, it becomes apparent that Chenault is strictly a love-interest, which doesn’t seem appropriate for a Thompson story. Meanwhile, millionaire Sanderson never seeks revenge and lazily exits the movie telling Kemp that he messed up a massively profitable deal.
Overall, this movie leaves too many loose ends, has no comprehensive plot — something that should have been adjusted from the novel — and is a tad too Hollywood for the true Hunter S. Thompson fan. Luckily, Depp’s redeeming presence alongside bizarre antics (such as being cock-blocked by the Führer) make up for any lost quality.