2.5 Stars out of 4
When Hunter S. Thompson wrote his (many unpublished) novels, I don’t think a movie adaptation was on his mind. Only booze, women, cocaine, and menthols. Maybe that is why Terry Gilliam’s adaptation of his Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas was so profoundly unwatchable. His stories are snake-like, as they writhe episodically across the desert of his existential jaunts. His words are terse and venomously cynical. His characters are sociopaths, who probably put rum in their cornflakes.
Bruce Robinson’s adaptation of Thompson’s “lost” novel The Rum Diary is probably as successful as it could have been. Like I said, it could not – should not – be turned into a movie. I can see Johnny Depp-lovers stumbling into what they think is a quirky dark comedy, and in that case they’ll want a drink after.
The film knows it is a shaggy-dog-story and that there is not much else. By the end, there is nothing else but an empty bottle of booze. I sense even readers of Thompson will be disappointed because it did not match the quality of the book. I also know Robinson’s fans will frown that this is not up to snuff with his cult classic Withnail & I.
But for what Robinson achieves he deserves a pat on the back. He tells The Rum Diary with as much clarity Thompson’s prose could ever offer. Compared to Fear and Loathing, The Rum Diary is more lucid – thank god! The meandering is inevitable, but for at least the first hour it moves.
The Rum Diary is located in Puerto Rico, where Paul Kemp (Johnny Depp) starts to write for the San Juan Star. Its office is run by editor Edward J. Lotterman (Richard Jenkins), who is not a model of leadership. Kemp is assigned incredibly silly projects, ones that he performs with a casual bitterness. Kemp’s enervation is internalized, which is why he often mutters words under his heavy breath like a drunk ready to scrap.
It is not till Kemp runs into an unscrupulous realtor named Hal Sanderson (Aaron Eckhart) that things take a sharp turn. Well, it’s Hal’s mistress Chenault (Amber Heard, Grace Kelly-like here) who creates the conflict. Don’t the dames always? Kemp is fascinated by Chenault; how he stares at her is as sober as he will look. The rest of the film is a personal binge across San Juan, with coworker Sala (Michael Rispoli) and the high maintenance Moburg (Giovanni Ribisi), whose shambling behavior is more in the vein of Depp’s in Fear and Loathing.
Is there much else? Honestly, no. Like its characters, The Rum Diary lives for the moment and goes where the wind takes it. The film moves, crawls but rarely builds through outlandish situations that could easily make great headlines themselves. Depp’s Kemp is more subdued, but this ends up useful. The Rum Diary, then, does not become more chaotic and disorderly than necessary.
It meanders passively. Not much happens, but the dialogue is the strong point. It is sharply written, and makes its characters so scummy, like they are mutation from the bottom of a beer bottle.
The Rum Diary was published in 1998, which was seven years before Thompson committed suicide. His last words, I read, were “Counsellor.” I think only the fanboys would understand. I also read The Rum Diary film was in production since 2000. Its first producer called it a “waterhead fuckaround”, thinking there was no way this bastard could be made. Over a decade now, look what we have here. Something that looks (and smells) like something Thompson may have never written.