The Rum Diary – A Victim Of Diminished Returns

By Ezra Stead

The Rum Diary, USA, 2011

Written and Directed by Bruce Robinson

Based on the Novel The Rum Diary by Hunter S. Thompson

The Rum Diary i an underwhelming Thompon adaptation that may prove better over time. To begin with, let me just say that this is a rather difficult review to write. I don’t think I saw this film under ideal circumstances. There was something missing, you see – I had not a drop of alcohol in my system. This was not accidental; with the exception of midnight movies I’ve seen many times before, I generally hate to be drunk in a movie theater, in large part due to the uncomfortable necessities of an overly full bladder. I hate to miss a moment of a film I’ve never seen due to such petty inconveniences. However, in the case of Bruce Robinson’s adaptation of the great Hunter S. Thompson’s “long lost novel” The Rum Diary (written in the early 1960s but not published until 1998), I think bringing in a flask would have been appropriate. Not to get drunk, mind you, but just a nip now and then, to take the edge off.

Of course, the characters in The Rum Diary are, by and large, not to the types of people to take the edge off of anything, and certainly not the types of drinkers to take a polite nip from a flask now and then. As in Thompson’s 1971 novel Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (brilliantly filmed by Terry Gilliam in 1998), the standard modus operandi of everyone here is excess. For Thompson surrogate Paul Kemp (Johnny Depp) and his fellow reporters at the rundown Puerto Rican newspaper The San Juan Star, the excess mostly takes the form of severe alcoholism. For Sanderson (Aaron Eckhart), the ostensible subject of Kemp’s assignment at the paper, it comes in the form of overarching greed, as he plots to continue destroying the home and livelihoods of the native Puerto Ricans in order to build more luxury hotels for wealthy tourists.

As far as actual, conventional plot goes, that’s about it. Kemp becomes embroiled in Sanderson’s shady dealings once Sanderson decides it would be a good idea to have a friendly liaison at the local newspaper and attempts to buy Kemp’s favor with expensive liquor and lavish niceties, most hilariously represented by a jewel-encrusted live turtle that wanders around his beachfront mansion. Kemp, despite his generally booze-addled state, has a sort of vague sense of integrity that won’t allow him to just cuddle up in Sanderson’s pocket; he also has a tremendous infatuation for Sanderson’s girlfriend, Chenault (Amber Heard), a strange change of pace from the apparent asexuality of Raoul Duke, the Thompson surrogate in Fear and Loathing (an older Thompson played by a much younger Depp in the film), especially compared to his attorney, Dr. Gonzo (Benicio Del Toro in the film), who had at least three demented courtships in that one (with no less than Cameron Diaz, Christina Ricci and Ellen Barkin in the film), all of which would potentially involve various criminal charges against Gonzo.

It is equally unfair and nearly impossible for me to write about this film without comparing it to Fear and Loathing, a film that was initially maligned by most critics but went on to achieve great and well-deserved cult status. Gilliam, as always, made a masterful but highly challenging film, and the entire 120 minutes of it is one long, epic hallucination. By contrast, Robinson (who already sort of made the first, unofficial British adaptation of Fear and Loathing with his 1987 directorial debut, Withnail & I) has made a much more palatable film for a mass audience, though that is still relative. Limiting its flamboyant visual flourishes to some very nice slow-motion photography and one hallucinatory sequence involving the tongue of Kemp’s cockfighting, alcoholic compatriot Sala (Michael Rispoli) that feels more like an out-of-place nod to the much better Gilliam film than anything else, the film is still a wild, incoherent ride through the depths of hooch-induced madness that will be unlikely to appeal to a mainstream audience.

The Rum Diary adds up to a lot less than the wild, chaotic abandon of Gilliam's previous, superior Thompson adaptation. There are certainly things to like about the film. The performances are solid all around, particularly Rispoli as Sala, perhaps the most genuinely likable character in the film (and a good surrogate for Del Toro’s Dr. Gonzo, who was not exactly likable, though it was an amazing performance) and the always reliable Richard Jenkins as Lotterman, the cranky editor of the Star. The flashiest performance, of course, is Giovanni Ribisi as Moburg, a shambling wreck of a drunk who is constantly being fired from the paper and occasionally lives with Sala and Kemp in a squalid apartment, but while he seems to be giving it his all, there is something inorganic and phony about the performance. He does a good job of remaining dirty and repugnant, but for me at least, he seems to be trying too hard. As for the film overall, I admit to being underwhelmed, whereas my first viewing of Gilliam’s Fear and Loathing back in ’98 was nothing if not overwhelming. To be fair, I certainly didn’t love that film right away, at least not as much as I later came to appreciate it after seeing it multiple times and reading the book a few times as well (I was only fifteen when the film came out and hadn’t yet actually read any Thompson). In both cases, perhaps a working knowledge of the original text is essential, and I have yet to read The Rum Diary, but on a single, unassisted first viewing, I must confess to some disappointment. There are many enjoyable moments, to be sure, but the rather subdued tone and utterly uninteresting romantic subplot between Kemp and Chenault add up to a lot less than the wild, chaotic abandon of Gilliam’s previous, superior Thompson adaptation.

Ezra Stead is the Head Editor for MoviesIDidn’ Ezra is also a screenwriter, actor, filmmaker, rapper and poet who has been previously published in print and online, as well as writing, directing and acting in numerous short films and two features. A Minneapolis native, Ezra currently lives in Brooklyn, New York.

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