A Voice of Ink and Rage

Movie Review: The Rum Diary (2011)
Summary: American journalist Paul Kemp takes on a freelance job in Puerto Rico for a local newspaper during the 1950s and struggles to find a balance between island culture and the expatriates who live there.
Spoilers: none

Johnny Depp is “Paul Kemp,” our lead man in The Rum Diary, a true story about an alcoholic journalist who takes a job with a struggling newspaper in Puerto Rico in the 1950s.

Kemp wants to bring conviction and make changes to a paper whose tired and stubborn editor-in-chief (Richard Jenkins) won’t allow reporting on real issues like poverty, sanitation problems, and living conditions of abject squalor. Kemp meets “Sanderson” (Aaron Eckhart). He and
other financial tycoons of the island try their hardest to draw Kemp’s attentions away from what needs improvement.

With his interests pulled between making money with the fat-cats and following his heart in making the newspaper an exception in a tourist-obsessed economy, Kemp will find the road to standing for principle a lot harder to walk than expected.

While it would be nice just once in a movie to have someone not have exact change for the cab driver upon exiting, we’d more nearly want to see Depp in something that actually utilizes his talents. This movie does not. Kemp is a passionate but reasonable man with a fair amount of intelligence. He loves his booz, but he dresses well and takes care of himself. He loves a beautiful woman, and, well, is just another guy who feels compelled to stick up for what matters—in other words, he’s not much different from any other wishfully principled person.

What actually repulses us is Puerto Rico, a place depicted as nothing but a slummy, corrupt, broke, and dirty city built on what it can exploit from the tourist market and back-alley cock fights. Those who run the show are no different than the “big guns” of Mexico. When things need changing the most, it is then that the system steps in and makes this impossible.

We’d respect the realism of it were it not for the fact that not every red tape tale is potent enough for a two-hour movie. By contrast, few would not acknowledge that in terms of straight-up production quality, this is top shelf.

Michael Rispoli
Those who run the system are the business tycoons and friends of Sanderson and they include “Mr. Zimburger” (Bill Smitrovich), a looney JFK democrat talking down communism while talking up himself. When Kemp and “Sala” (Michael Rispoli), the photographer at the paper, get in trouble with the law, they realize that by being bailed out of jail by those who own the system, they are effectively owned by them.

We watch the power struggles. We see the role of substance-abuse in the life of Kemp, and more so, the pitiable “Moburg” (Giovanni Robisi), who lives 24/7 in the mental marsh of addiction, but who is perhaps the only character that is unique enough to beg our attention.

The film pretends to go in one direction but never gives the audience anything to enjoy or to chew on. No emotional bonds or victories, no emotional investments of any kind. If you find entrenchment in the development of the plot or anything of real interest in this well-told and wrinkle-free story, you are the exception.

Giovanni Ribisi, Richard Jenkins

The long and slow story development is accompanied by expectedly fine acting, and in more than a few places, the movie is LOL funny. It is difficult to tell what could have been done to make this picture more marketable aside from gearing it for the made-for-TV venue. And if there’s a point beyond trying to make a bland, ordinary character and un-compelling story likeable, I’m not getting it.


Grade: C+ (2 ½ stars)
Rated: R (for language, brief drug use, and sexuality)
Director: Bruce Robinson
Starring: “Kemp” (Johnny Depp), “Sanderson” (Aaron Eckhart), “Sala” (Michael Rispoli), “Chenault” (Amber Heard), “Lotterman” (Richard Jenkins), “Moburg” (Giovanni Ribisi)
Genre: Comedy / Drama / Romance / Thriller