DVD: The Rum Diary

  It took more than a decade to bring Hunter S. Thompson’s The Rum Diary to theaters, six years after the author’s death in 2005. Now available on DVD (Sony Pictures Home Entertainment, MSRP: $30.99) and Blu-ray (MSRP: $35.99), the story of a writer who finds his voice in 1960s Puerto Rico is, mostly, a fitting tribute to the author whose dream it was to see it on the big screen.

Paul Kemp (Johnny Depp) is a New York novelist who, frustrated with his lack of progress as a writer, moves to Puerto Rico to take a job reporting for the San Juan Star. At first given entry-level assignments by his editor-in-chief, Lotterman (Richard Jenkins), Kemp is content to nurse his alcoholism and pal around with staff photographer Sala (Michael Rispoli).

He soon finds himself courted by the powerful Sanderson (Aaron Eckhart), who involves him in a scheme to generate a lot of cash for some greedy investors—at the expense of the poor. Complicating matters, Kemp falls for Sanderson’s wild child fiancée, Chenault (the radiant Amber Heard). “Oh, God. Why did she have to happen, just when I was doing so well without her?” Kemp muses.

As he begins to fall deeper in love with an unavailable woman, Kemp also starts to see the damage men like Sanderson and even Lotterman are doing to the people of Puerto Rico, keeping them in poverty while courting rich Americans to play on their beaches or at their “safe” hotels and bowling alleys. When Kemp starts to submit stories that reflect the true nature of life on the island, Lotterman laughs, “The average Joe doesn’t save up for 25 years so he can take a cruise to the islands and hear how bad conditions are at the sugar plantation.”

Disillusioned and angry, Kemp suddenly finds the inspiration he’s been seeking and vows, “I will try to speak for my reader. That is my promise, and it will be a voice made of ink and rage.”

Thompson penned The Rum Diary during a very formative period of his career, and most consider the book to be a barely fictionalized autobiography (though he jokingly disabuses that notion in the special features). He very much wanted to write a Great American Novel, in the fashion of Hemingway or Steinbeck, and the book is indeed the enduring story about a writer finding his voice in an exotic land. Does the film version also translate into a cinematic opus? Not so much.

Lacking The Great Gatsby’s drama or Of Mice and Men’s rough character, there is nevertheless a great deal to like in The Rum Diary. The casting is inspired, with perhaps the exception of Eckhart, who seems curiously unenthusiastic in his bad-guy character. Rispoli and Heard shine in a version of the angel- and devil-on-the-shoulder roles (though, in this case, the devil wears apple-blossom lipstick), and Jenkins proves yet again to be one of the best-kept secrets in Hollywood.

Bruce Robinson does a credible job translating Thompson’s work into a script that keeps the flavor of the original work, though the story doesn’t quite have enough peaks and valleys to stir any great feeling, either for the main characters or the people of Puerto Rico. He also does a fine job as director, keeping the story focused and well-paced. Oddly enough, the weakest link in the film is Depp himself. As a good friend of Thompson’s, and an early champion and producer of this film, one might assume that he would embrace the role more thoroughly. Instead, he seems somewhat tentative in his portrayal, as if he were so worried about doing his friend justice he forgot to make the role his own.

One of the real stars of this film is the cinematography. The flavor of the time and place is so authentic, the viewer can almost smell the stale tobacco and sweat in the newspaper offices, feel the cloying heat of the bodies pressed together around a cockfight and taste the heavy, salt-tinged Caribbean air on a boat bound for Carnival. This isn’t the glamorous ’60s of shows like “Mad Men” or “Pan Am;” The Rum Diary’s contrasts between the easy lifestyle of the wealthy and the deplorable conditions of the poor aren’t just played for shock, but feel genuine in their effect, and give real weight to Kemp’s eventual desire to expose the “bastards” of the world.

As far as bonus features go, there are relatively few included on both the DVD and Blu-ray release. What the discs lack in quantity, however, is made up in quality—especially if viewers are fans of Depp or Thompson.

“A Voice Made of Ink and Rage: Inside The Rum Diary” takes an inside look at the filming of the movie, from Depp’s pre-shoot ritual for honoring his departed friend to costume design to the type of film used to capture the essence of Puerto Rico. Focusing mainly on the actor/producer, it’s a fairly standard behind-the-scenes feature, but well done and chock full of interesting tidbits for film buffs.

The Rum Diary Back-Story,” by contrast, is made for fans of Thompson and the novel that inspired the film. Less a polished documentary than a well-edited collection of home movies and interviews, this feature is a far more intimate look at The Rum Diary
’s journey from a rough manuscript languishing in Thompson’s study to the silver screen. Featuring footage shot as far back as 1998, viewers are treated to the author’s final efforts at editing the story before publication, his and Depp’s meetings with potential producers and scenes of Thompson simply reading passages from his own work aloud. Though at times the writer is so difficult to understand he requires subtitles, he exudes enthusiasm and genuine pride in his words. A complex man, at turns charming and obstinate, Thompson seems at all times to know who he is and completely embraces it.

Although it doesn’t completely live up to the grand cinematic aspirations Thompson might have had for the movie, The Rum Diary is still a lovely snapshot of a time when America was just losing its innocence, drinking and smoking were job requirements and one of last century’s most iconic talents found his voice.

The Rum Diary is now available on DVD and Blu-ray. 

Published on LifeInLA.com

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