The Rum Diary (2011)

The Rum Diary (2011) – “You’re high, you fool! Drink some rum!”

I have read Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and I’ve read many essays and articles by the late great Dr. Hunter S. Thompson, but I’ve never actually read The Rum Diary. I know it’s an outright novel, meaning it was more invented than something along the lines of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (though that certainly had its share of fiction in it too). While it was written by Thompson in the early 1960s it wasn’t published until 1998. I’ve been hearing about a film adaptation for over a decade now, at one point rumored to reunite Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas stars Johnny Depp and Benecio Del Toro. In the end, only Depp returned and mad visionary director Terry Gilliam is missing as well. Instead we get Bruce Robinson, whose cult favorites How to Get Ahead in Advertising and Withnail and I are also among the ranks of notable films I have not seen. (God damn, it seems like I spend half my reviews these days talking about things I HAVEN’T seen or read…)

As opposed to reprising the character of Raoul Duke this time Depp plays Paul Kemp. Like Duke, Kemp is based on Thompson himself but a different Thompson. A younger one, first and foremost. Depp does a decent job of establishing the same core of the character while hardly at all adapting any of the physicality or mannerisms he adopted in the other film. He creates a different character from the same source, and whatever else you think about the movie I think he deserves some credit for that. Kemp is hired at a newspaper in Puerto Rico, the San Juan Star. The editor (Richard Jenkins) believes the responsibility is basically to sell Puerto Rico as a tourist destination and he tries to get Kemp to tone down his cynicism. Kemp meets some of the other reprobates at the newspaper, including photographer Bob Sala (Michael Rispoli) and crime and religion writer Moberg (an annoyingly over-the-top Giovanni Ribisi). He also meets a smooth operator named Sanderson (Aaron Eckhart) who has some kind of real estate scam going on that he wants Kemp to help out with. Kemp also has his eye on Sanderson’s much younger trophy girlfriend Chenault (Amber Heard). So this is all heading somewhere right?

Yes and no. Let me just first say outright: The Rum Diary is not a good movie. It’s meandering and it’s not full of the fire that makes Thompson’s work so strong (Though not having read the book I guess maybe it isn’t either; I don’t know). From a wider perspective there are some interesting things at play. You could almost see this movie as a kind of Batman Begins-style prequel for the gonzo journalism of the Good Doctor. The movie features Kemp segueing from heavy drinking into experimenting with hallucinogenic drugs. It also features a growing anger at the “bastards” who think they own the world. This is not, however, a origin story that needed to be told. The journey is not, in this case, more interesting than the destination. This is the third adaptation of Thompson’s work to screen and the second (after Where the Buffalo Roam) to fail to capture what made his writing feel so urgent. You’d be bettr off checking out Alex Gibey’s excellent biographical documentary Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson. You can skip The Rum Diary and try reading his books instead.

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