By Mike Richardson
When the news broke that Johnny Depp was bringing The Rum Diary, Hunter S. Thompson’s only published novel, to the screen AND it was to be adapted and directed by the man behind Withnail and I(Bruce Robinson), fans reacted with the exuberant shock and awe usually only reserved for a cannon blast.
Following that reaction, most film reviews of The Rum Diary have been tepid. One reviewer claimed that ardent Thompson fans would despise it. Presumably he meant any ardent Thompson fans who hadn’t read the novel. Another (ill-informed) reviewer said that it was “not bad but, probably terrible if you’re a huge fan.” I’m a huge fan (of Depp, Thompson and Robinson) and I found it far from terrible; flawed would be my harshest criticism.
It is an unfamiliar view of Hunter (I hate to advocate drugs, alcohol, violence, or insanity but they’ve always worked for me) Thompson and is much more of a slow burn than the scorchings of Fear & Loathing.
The film is, not surprisingly, a victim of the audience’s preconceptions. With Capt. Jack Sparrow himself as the star, a drug-fuelled gonzo scribe providing the source material, a sun drenched /anything goes location and the man behind the most quotable dipsomaniac film of all time at the helm, many people expected a 140% proof Pirates and Loathing in Puerto Rico. The Rum Diary was always going to be something else.
In case anyone doesn’t know the story, Hunter S. Thompson wrote the Rum Diary at the age 22, way back in the late 1950s, it failed to find a publisher and was consigned to a box in the author’s garage. In 1998, Johnny Depp and Hunter stumbled upon the manuscript while the actor was living with Thompson, learning how to play the journalist for Terry Gilliam’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998), and (in no small part to the film’s release) it was belatedly published.
Thompson admitted that he wanted to write the great American novel and The Rum Diary is very much a young man’s attempt at a great work of literature, yet it is 1,000 miles away from the excesses of Fear and Loathing (1971), the blistering lyrics of Hells Angels (1965) or the caustic wit of Thompson’s later political / social tirades Generation Swine (1988) etc. For example consider this exert from the novel, “Sometimes at dusk, the Garbage God would gather a handful of those choked-off morning hopes and dangle them somewhere just out of reach; they would hang in the breeze and make a sound like delicate glass bells, reminding you of something you never quite got hold of, and never would.”
The film’s storyline has Depp as Paul Kemp: an insincere hack journalist stuck re-writing horoscopes and covering tourist bowling tournaments. He is chronically unsure of his voice and his mission (I don’t know how to write like me, he says at one point). Once relocated to Puerto Rico he has some mini-adventures with the colourful locals and his eccentric ex-pat workmates (Michael Rispoli and Giovanni Ribisi), becomes involved with a greedy, amoral businessman (Aaron Eckhart) and his trophy girlfriend (Amber Heard) before, finally, discovering truth, justice and direction. However, the whole doesn’t quite hang together as “an origins of” Hunter S. and doesn’t quite address the source novels issues regarding integrity, ambition, potential and burnout.
It’s actually not the audience’s fault that they were expecting something different. The trailer wrong-footed us all, painting The Rum Diary as a jolly rum-soaked comedy, starring a hard drinking journalist on a picturesque Caribbean island with a beautiful blonde (imagine Judd Apatow remaking Oliver Stone’s Salvadore (1986)). The funniest and the sexiest scenes in the film made up 90% of the trailer, whereas the portrait of the journalist as a young man / self-discovery narrative was barely mentioned.
Johnny Depp delivers another great performance, as does the entire cast. Bruce Robinson is a fine writer and an even better director, the whole film looks great and is marinated in the sort of human charms that are utterly non-existent in the majority of shallow Hollywood fare, especially recent motion control extravaganza like Tintin. Yet, The Rum Diary isn’t a perfect film; it should be about 30 min shorter (the book comes in at a lean 204 pages), the conflict and resolution narrative should be clearer, the main characters progression from lazy, drunken, hack to crazy, drunken, gonzo-crusader should have been more obvious and we should have been treated to more pearly copy from the great man himself.
Despite these failings, The Rum Diary is both a handsome and intelligent film that is a rewarding experience to anyone who knows Hunter S. Thompson for more than the booze and pills of (“You poor fool! Wait till you see those goddamn bats!”) Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.