‘The Rum Diary’ needs less sheen, more ‘fear, loathing’

By Ross Hettell

Hunter S. Thompson once wrote a book, forgot about it and published it years later. It was called The Rum Diary, and now it’s a major motion picture.

The Rum Diary is set in the 1960s and follows Paul Kemp (played by Johnny Depp), a journalist from New York who has a slight problem “at the upper end of social drinking.” He comes to San Juan, Puerto Rico to join a failing newspaper full of hacks and degenerates who spend more time drowning themselves in rum than actually writing articles. It’s like no newspaper I’ve ever worked for (honest!).

Depp is no slouch in the movie. He pulls the acting through with the usual Depp mannerisms and comedic timing. It’s a great performance, if a bit reminiscent of his Jack Sparrow shtick. Depp has played Thompson’s fictional alter egos before in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, so he pulls it off again quite naturally in The Rum Diary.

The cinematography is eye-catching, the colors crisp and saturated. One scene stands out in particular in which Kemp drops LSD. He’s entrapped by the match he just lit, and the director stretches out that moment, giving it that hyper-realistic feeling of when you’re under the influence and you know you’ve only been staring at the match for 20 seconds, but it feels like a week.

What doesn’t make the transition from book to film is the self-deprecating ideals and introspection. It confuses me because apparently the director and screenwriter, Bruce Robinson, retired from his six years of sobriety to write this screenplay, so you’d think he would be right in tune with the drunken perspectives of Kemp, and by extension, Thompson. Perhaps it’s because this movie doesn’t have the running narration from the main character like Fear and Loathing does.

It just has a bit too much Hollywood polish.

[Spoilers Below]

The most telling is the final scene of the movie. Kemp literally sails away into the sunset, whereafter we’re told by postscript he marries the bad guy’s blonde ex-girlfriend and becomes a world-renowned journalist. In the book, everything’s gone to hell and Kemp has to flee San Juan from the cops – but not before grabbing a few more shots of rum at the local watering hole with his partner in crime, Bob Salas.

That’s not to say the film’s not enjoyable. It has some good laughs, and I’ll watch most anything with an attractive blonde and a ’60s Corvette being run through its paces. But if you want to experience what Hunter S. Thompson really thought, you need to do so in the way he felt most comfortably expressing himself: the written word.