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Movie Review

It's 1960. Paul Kemp, author of two and a half unpublished novels, has just deplaned (and gotten smashing drunk on rum at his hotel) in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Devouring aspirin to temper a wicked hangover, Kemp shuffles through the steamy Caribbean capital's streets to land a job at the local paper, The San Juan Star.

He discovers a newsroom full of misfits and miscreants led by a pompous and preening editor, E.J. Lotterman. Kemp gets the job—he was the only applicant—and fits right in. And what a job it is: writing horoscopes and covering vacuous stories, such as Americans' love for San Juan's bowling alleys.

When Kemp's not writing puff pieces, he's drinking. A lot. Mostly rum. Often with fellow Star staffer Bob Sala, a jolly but disheveled sad sack of a photographer who's taken Kemp under his sweaty wing. A man who's prone to medicating every waking moment with, you guessed it, rum.

But as Kemp staggers through this hedonistic, purpose-starved existence, two divergent realities begin to pull him in opposite directions.

Direction 1) His rum-sodden conscience begins to awaken as he notices how impoverished so many of San Juan's residents are. And it makes him angry.

Direction 2) He's quickly courted (with nice perks like a shiny Corvette convertible) by a slippery land shark named Hal Sanderson, who wants Kemp to write marketing copy selling his slick vision of Puerto Rico's future. Sanderson envisions an island paradise for the privileged and for corporate executives who don't want to bother with those annoying little things called taxes. And never mind the thousands of locals who'll get tossed off their land like so many vagrants to make way for his sprawling hotels.

Enter Sanderson's Venus-like beauty of girlfriend, Chenault, who captivates Kemp's imagination … and leads him into all sorts of other trouble. It's a ramshackle, liquor-fueled farce that sets the stage for Kemp's moment of truth about his real purpose as a writer—a moment that comes courtesy of a mind-altering drug and a conversation with a lobster.

Positive Elements

Early on, Kemp is little more than a lazy, drunken, conniving opportunist who's rocketing toward self-destruction. He talks about wanting to find purpose and voice in his writing … but he doesn't do much to push the process along. Until he walks through a slum one day and notices a young girl living in an abandoned car. And he watches as Sanderson threatens to kill several poor men trespassing on his beach. And he grows weary of hearing Lotterman tell him that no one wants to read stories about San Juan's real problems or the injustices being perpetrated upon the poor. And he begins to hate that the Star is beholden to its advertisers, that its editorial content is ultimately supposed to make San Juan look good for big-spending tourists.

Thus Kemp commits to write stories that are honest, that strive to combat the corruption and inequality he sees. He vows to confront the "b‑‑tards of the world" who are taking advantage of the vulnerable. He also strives mightily, along with the help of Sala and another (profoundly alcoholic) co-worker named Moburg, to use the Star as a force for good … before it runs out of money and stops the presses.

Spiritual Content

In an altered state while talking to a lobster, Kemp observes, "Human beings are the only creatures on earth that claim a God and the only living thing that behaves like it hasn't got one." Sala suggests, "It is as if God in a fit of disgust has decided to wipe us all out."

Moburg maintains the religion beat at the paper. He despises Christianity and is very open to voodoo. So before an important cockfighting contest, he suggests that Kemp and Sala take their combat rooster to a "hermaphroditic oracle of the devil" who uses the organs of dead people to bless and curse for a price. An elaborate voodoo ritual follows in which she imbues the fowl with a charm that supposedly makes it impervious to wounding. (The bird later wins three fights.) Kemp asks if she can put a curse on Sanderson that will "make his d‑‑k fall off." And at the end of the ritual, the woman coughs up a frog out of her mouth.

Lotterman coaches Kemp on how to write a horoscope.

Sexual Content

Kemp meets Chenault—and they begin to seriously flirt—when he's on a paddleboat and she's skinny-dipping (her body is submerged). Sanderson tells Kemp that Chenault sunbathes nude and that she draws a crowd at the property's fences in the process. She frequently wears revealing outfits.

Looking through a telescope, Kemp sees Sanderson and Chenault having sex in the water. We see (at a distance and in the shadow of his boat) both of their bare upper torsos and sexual movements.

Kemp, Sanderson, Chenault and others go to a bar where Chenault dances sensually. She attracts a man who removes his shirt and unzips her dress on the dance floor. (Kemp and Sanderson are both prevented from getting to her to protect her from his overt advances.) Several days go by before Kemp sees her again, and it's implied that she'd been through a very rough time and was perhaps raped.

Chenault (clothed) kisses Kemp as he showers. (We see his torso.) Soon the pair is kissing on a bed. (He's wearing a towel. Her shirt and bra are removed.) Her breasts are briefly visible before the tryst is interrupted.

We see a hung over Kemp in his boxers. Mention is made of "whores for the fat men." A double entendre references oral sex. A man makes something of a move on Kemp in jail. To solicit laughs, a suggestive scene has Kemp bouncing up and down on Sala's lap.

Violent Content

A car chase involves Kemp and Sala being pursued by locals. Windows are broken and it looks as if the pair will be killed until Kemp turns some potent rum and a cigarette into a makeshift flamethrower. A police officer's face is burned in the process. Another car chase involves the pair zooming down a flight of stairs. And a final reckless car scene involves Chenault daring Kemp to keep accelerating in Sanderson's Corvette until one of them screams; they almost end up in the ocean … both screaming.

Sanderson punches someone in a bar. A police officer kicks a bloodied protester on the ground. A man in jail is described as being raped to death. Moburg vents a violent verbal fantasy in which he imagines shooting his boss and spraying his organs all over the room. Two scenes involve roosters cockfighting.

Crude or Profane Language

At least 25 f-words and half a dozen s-words. Jesus' and God's names are each abused six or seven times. God's is paired with "d‑‑n." We also hear "b‑‑tard," "h‑‑‑," "a‑‑," "p‑‑‑" and "pr‑‑k."

Drug and Alcohol Content

Let's just say The Rum Diary lives up to its name. The titular hard liquor makes more onscreen appearances than most leading men did in the '40s. And it's joined by wine, champagne and beer. Kemp, Sala—nearly every character, in fact—drinks in virtually every scene. If they were watching their own movie, they'd make a drinking game out of trying to spot scenes in which no one's drinking. And then they'd get mad 'cause they weren't getting drunk fast enough.

Moburg has been badly damaged by his love of rum. Sala puts it this way: Rum ate away "the entire substructure of his brain." And we see Moburg pursue liquor like a lioness pursues a gazelle. He talks about 470 proof rum, and he "proves" its potency by blowing a mouthful into a lit match, throwing a massive flame across the room. We hear that Kemp's gone through 161 small bottles of rum from his hotel room's minibar. Drinking and driving is commonplace.

After one particularly bad drunken experience, Kemp gives up rum. It's a resolution that lasts for a couple of scenes … and then he's off the wagon again.

Smoking (cigarettes and cigars) is equally omnipresent. And Moburg sells Kemp and Sala a liquid in an eyedropper which he describes as "the most powerful drug in the history of narcotics." (He says he stole it from the FBI.) Kemp and Sala both take some of it and begin hallucinating. We see Kemp imagining Sala's tongue coming out of his mouth in an ever elongating way. And it's at this point that he talks to the lobster. It's strongly implied that this unnamed psychedelic drug is the key to unlocking Kemp's imprisoned creative spirit.

Other Negative Elements

Kemp lies to Lotterman about his drinking habit during his job interview. Moburg, who's almost never at the office, accosts Lotterman and pulls off his boss's toupee. Moburg also has an affinity for Hitler, playing recordings of his speeches.

Sanderson has a deeply racist business associate. Sanderson and several businessmen scheme how to manipulate public opinion to take over a coveted private island. He easily manipulates local judges when Kemp and Sala get arrested.

At Moburg's request, Kemp examines the other man's damaged genitals (grimacing). A drunk man vomits. Desperate for anything to drink other than rum, Kemp drinks scummy water from a goldfish bowl. Someone mentions "a turd in a Jacuzzi."

We see people gambling at slot machines. Kemp steals Sanderson's sailboat.


The writer in search of himself: It's a literary construct that, while clichéd and self-absorbed, nevertheless remains an inescapable attraction for many a storyteller.

Such was the case with Hunter S. Thompson, the father of so-called Gonzo journalism, who began his loosely autobiographical novel The Rum Diary in 1959 at age 22. The story, about a world-weary, would-be novelist marking time at a newspaper in San Juan, languished for decades before finally getting published in 1998. Thirteen years after that, Johnny Depp (a longtime friend of Thompson, who committed suicide in 2005) steps into the deck shoes of the author's fictionalized doppelgänger.

Like Thompson, Kemp exudes a jagged blend of razor-sharp cynicism, hedonistic hunger and idealistic fervor. In the novel, Thompson's character says, "Like most others, I was a seeker, a mover, a malcontent, and at times a stupid hell-raiser. I was never idle long enough to do much thinking, but I felt somehow that some of us were making real progress, that we had taken an honest road, and that the best of us would inevitably make it over the top. At the same time, I shared a dark suspicion that the life we were leading was a lost cause, that we were all actors, kidding ourselves along on a senseless odyssey. It was the tension between these two poles—a restless idealism on one hand and a sense of impending doom on the other—that kept me going."

Depp's portrayal of Kemp quirkily and completely captures that duality between restless idealism and impending doom.

Of course we also get plenty of senseless odyssey tossed in along the way. Not to mention sensual odyssey. And drunken odyssey—along with the dangerous suggestion that authentic creativity is only accessible via a drug-altered state (part of a worldview Thompson spent his life enthusiastically promoting).

Thompson's Kemp hoped to challenge the scheming, conniving, unjust robber barons of the world he loathed so deeply. But his clarion call to expose and topple injustice ends up sounding more like an underwater burble, muffled by both rum and an amorphous, self-serving conception of morality.

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Johnny Depp as Paul Kemp; Michael Rispoli as Bob Sala; Aaron Eckhart as Hal Sanderson; Amber Heard as Chenault; Richard Jenkins as E.J. Lotterman; Giovanni Ribisi as Moburg; Amaury Nolasco as Segurra


Bruce Robinson ( )


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In Theaters

October 28, 2011

On Video

February 14, 2012

Year Published



Adam R. Holz

We hope this review was both interesting and useful. Please share it with family and friends who would benefit from it as well.

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