As far as whimsy goes, Bruce Robinson’s film adaptation of The Rum Diary succeeds intermittently, almost in spite of the film’s protracted duration. But while Depp and company — especially Giovanni Ribisi’s drunken mess of a character — provide some entertaining scenes, the narrative as a whole feels as incoherent as Moburg (Ribisi). Ultimately, the film’s disjointed narrative is too disorienting for us to take seriously its more sobering aims.
Paul Kemp (Depp) is a nomadic journalist looking to solidify his life when he arrives in the Caribbean to write for a second-rate newspaper. Everyone around Kemp seems a mess for one reason or another: his colleagues are laughably incompetent and regularly drunk; his fellow American expatriates living in Puerto Rico are pursuing illegal, greed-driven property gains; and he notices a beleaguered class of island people who are being defrauded so that egoistic elites like Sanderson can thrive. Yet, none of these three strands quite come together in any compelling way.
Perhaps this is because they seem secondary to Kemp’s relatively inconsequential conundrum: a lusty desire for the mysterious and attractive Chenault (Amber Heard), who is the girlfriend of Sanderson (Aaron Eckhart), the leading American exploiter of the island. Sanderson has his eye on Kemp because he hopes that some postitve journalism will propel his shady business ambitions. But Kemp has his eye on Chenault from the time she catches him off-guard on a late-night swim. Much of the film centers on the sexual tension between the two wandering souls. Yet, because the nature of their flirtatious relationship is mostly a playful jaunt, the film, too, struggles to maintain any focused purpose, and the rest of Diary‘s narrative threads suffer the consequences.
The film seems almost desperate to say something profound about the American Dream as a veneer covering the reality of the perpetrated evils that are necessary for the Dream to exist. This desperation is nowhere more evident than in Diary‘s overtly scripted antagonists. Sanderson is mostly a bore, uninteresting because his greed and maniacal temperament are so obvious (though Eckhart does the best he can with what he has to work with), while the pack of Americans following his lead are borderline-caricature conservatives. Most detracting from the film’s more serious aims, however, is its protagonist. Kemp seems less concerned with betraying Sanderson’s interest in using his journalistic sway than he is with stealing his voluptuous girlfriend.
So when the seemingly never-ending film finally comes to a close — after all of the thrills, drinking, one-liners, and sexual tension have happened almost haphazardly — the supposed journalistic resolve that Kemp has to spend his life ensuring “the bastards got what was coming to them” feels empty and unaffecting. And it’s not just that the film doesn’t provoke concern through its narrative (it doesn’t), it’s also that we’re not even sure Kemp has the journalistic perception necessary to know who the “bastards” are. His seemingly urgent declaration is incongruous with the oft-distracted meandering that precedes it. Ultimately, Kemp’s supposed newfound purpose feels like more of a façade than the American Dream.
There’s too much rum involved in Kemp’s diary-recorded search for stability for us to take seriously any “voice” that he may have found.