The Rum Diary has a lot of big names behind it. There’s Hunter S. Thompson, one of America’s most anti-establishment writers, and Johnny Depp, one of Hollywood’s richest actors. And somewhere in between is Bruce Robinson, who made Withnail & I and is returning to directing after a nineteen-year break.
Depp plays Paul Kemp, a journalist who likes a drink, finding himself in Puerto Rico, amongst a group of troubled journalist all working on a collapsing newspaper and who all also like a drink. Stifling boredom with alcohol, these men lead a sweaty and somewhat depressing existence and are given to wondering how they ended up here. Kemp falls in with crooked property developer Sanderson (played, of course, by Aaron Eckhart), who asks him to provide positive media coverage for a controversial property deal. Kemp is troubled by all of this, and begins wondering if this is a moral way to use his writing talent.
While Thompson’s novel is a serio-comic novel about lost men with lost ideals, Depp and Robinson have turned it into something more political and biographical, though I use both these terms advisedly. For one thing, the very modern jabs at capitalism clash somewhat with the rest of the film. Though it may use Thompson’s anti-establishment voice, it is, after all, a film with Johnny Depp in it and, hence, it is very much part of that establishment. One shot features Depp looking cool in some kind of sports car. Depp and Robinson would probably claim that it is a condemnation, a hint that Kemp is selling out, but it seems undeniable that they nonetheless like having the sports car there. And though Kemp eventually steers clear of Sanderson (though it is more a case of Sanderson keeping him away) and develops a pure writing voice that is his own, it is presented as the triumphant achievement of an individual writer, not as a call to arms against the forces that tried to control his gift in the first place. The film becomes a tribute to Thompson’s writing, and in the process avoids doing anything risky. In the end, it is a film that claims to be as anti-establishment as Thompson was, but it doesn’t dare go as far as Thompson would have. In fact, it reaffirms the very thing that it sets out to criticize. Where Thompson’s novel ends with darkness and despair, the film ends with dewy-eyed nostalgia and metaphors about the wind in the sails. If this is considered a political film, it must be considered as one of the most timid and unfocussed.
Worse still, as biography, it is a fan boy film – a recklessly false and uncritical presentation of Thompson’s life and work. Depp’s Kemp only finds his voice following an encounter with LSD, despite the fact that many writers emphatically deny the link between drugs and inspiration. And while Thompson’s work is about loss and the sadness behind the craziness (something that was proven to be a workable concept in film with Terry Gilliam’s much better Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas), The Rum Diary verges onto slapstick farce and overdone comedy. Essentially, it is a film made by people who seemed to miss the entire point of Thompson’s writing, seeing only the crazy behaviour and a valorisation of drugs that wasn’t there to begin with. And when the film does address some of Thompson’s themes, such as the fact that the American dream doesn’t exist, it merely comes across as insincere.
As well as this, the film is too long and not very funny as well as being a mess. It is not a faithful adaptation (nor does it have to be), but it seems fairly arbitrary about what they leave in and what they leave out. A sequence late in the film concerning Chenault (Amber Heard, saddled with a role that is helplessly dull and undermining) appears to be there only because of concern about accusations of cowardice if it had been absent. However, it is there, dealt with quickly and insincerely and then disappears. It is a scene that is significant in the darker novel, and absolutely incompatible with this light and airy tribute of a film.
Though I am far from a Thompson purist, I can’t help but think that he would have hated this film. Not only does it not have courage in its convictions, it doesn’t even understand what its convictions are supposed to be.