Directed by Bruce Robinson
Expectations: Low. Heard bad things, but my love for Hunter S. Thompson is enough to get me to watch this.
I can now fully understand the negative backlash to The Rum Diary. When it released into theaters I decided against heading out to see it, despite a high interest. I did that because I’ve read Hunter S. Thompson’s The Rum Diary, and I enjoyed it, but when I finally saw the trailer for this adaptation it looked as if they had taken the rather different source material and gave it a heavy dose of Fear and Loathing’s manic energy. I called bullshit and said I’d catch it on DVD. Well here I am a few months later, DVD in hand, and damn if the movie isn’t pretty close to the book. What we have here is a case of poor marketing. The film was marketed as a non-stop rush of waggling devil tongues and slurred words, so obviously people who bought into that in the trailer were disappointed when they saw the subtly chaotic piece on the discovery of a journalist’s craft. And conversely, I am pleasantly surprised by the shift in tone and focus from the marketing. So in effect the marketing is specifically targeting non-fans by drawing them in with empty promises, but turning off fans who know the book in the same stroke. The film is quite reverent of Thompson and his ideals, so I can only imagine the shitstorm that went down between the marketing department and the filmmakers. Or perhaps I’d just like to imagine something similar to the events of The Rum Diary surrounding the production of The Rum Diary.
This is the story of Paul Kemp, an alcoholic journalist who has taken a job at a shithole paper in Puerto Rico. He comes to the job as a failed (or failing) novelist in search of his voice, but instead of something that fulfills his high ideals, he’s given the horoscope column and fluff pieces on the tourists’ love of bowling. Kemp responds with harsh, biting words about the life of the obese American dream. His editor, Lotterman (Richard Jenkins), instantly rejects the idea, not on personal principle but on the fact that no American in Puerto Rico would want to read that. Unsatisfied, Kemp continues to plumb the depths of the American experience in Puerto Rico, and soon finds himself wrapped up in some shady deals with Sanderson (Aaron Eckhart). Simply describing the plot points like this doesn’t do justice to the feeling and the narrative of The Rum Diary. Strict plot is not the goal of Thompson, and it’s not the goal of this film. Instead it seeks to chart a man’s journey of self discovery through a series of crazy, sometimes surreal experiences. It does so quite well actually, but it does take a little long to get where it’s going, and even I was unsure exactly what it was trying to do until about halfway through and I’ve read the book (but forgot a good portion of it).
As you might expect a film about an author’s discovery of his written voice to be, it’s slow-moving and subtle. There’s more than one “Johnny Depp banging something out at the typewriter” scene. It lacks the cohesive through lines that a traditional plot would have, instead focusing on something of a chaotic and fractured storytelling nature. The film is rather slickly pulled off though, so a lot of the fracturing can easily blend together, making it seem like you missed something instead of something just not being there. I’d expect that in a low-budget B-movie, but with a film this nice to look at it’s harder to recognize. Where many may call the film poorly paced (and it could definitely use something of a boost), the slow, methodical pace works well to put you in the shoes of Paul Kemp and his rum-fueled experiences on the isle of Puerto Rico.
In the novel, Kemp is something of a surrogate character for Hunter S. Thompson himself. Thompson initially wanted to be a novelist, but was unable to get that off the ground so like Kemp, he turned to journalism. Eventually that would lead him to create gonzo journalism, a new style in which the line between fact and fiction is blurred heavily in trunkful of illicit substances. Thompson’s written voice comes through multiple times throughout the film, as Depp speaks his words verbatim, or, in the more inspired moments, narrates the film with his spot-on Thompson impersonation. The bowling scene is one of the best of these scenes, but they were much too far and few between for my taste. I guess I’ll just have to read some more Thompson for those intense, colorful sentences that impress me so.
The heart of the film is Thompson’s burning indictment of the American presence in Puerto Rico. The film perfectly captures this element in its script and in its visuals. The music choices could have been a lot more evocative and meaningful, but instead we’re stuck with some cut-rate public domain sounding blues rock/jazz/harmonica blues/etc. that only manages to take me out of the film instantly. I did enjoy The Rum Diary quite a bit, but I don’t know that I’d willingly recommend it to others. It’s a very singular type of story that only some will enjoy, but if you have a burning love of journalism and Hunter S. Thompson, then I’d say give it a go.