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The Rum Diary

October 29, 2011
The Rum Diary

Everyone knows Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, both the lightly-fictionalized novel by Hunter S. Thompson about two visits to Vegas in the early 1970s, and the 1998 film starring Johnny Depp — a personal friend to Thompson in his later years — as Thompson’s stand-in Raoul Duke. More than anything else, that work stands for Thompson’s entire body of “gonzo” work, and its lasting influence on long-form journalism. But Thompson didn’t come out of nowhere; The Rum Diary tells of his first steps as a fledgling journalist in 1960. But let’s be honest: unless you’re a big fan of his work, gonzo is what you’re looking for and this film fails to ever really deliver the goods.

The Rum Diary is much more fictional than Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, though Thompson did work at a sports paper in Puerto Rico in 1960, and he knew many of the staff at the San Juan Star. In the story, we instead find Paul Kemp (Depp) moving to the island to work at the Star despite the fact that all signs point to it going under. The editor, Ed Lotterman (Richard Jenkins) claims that some new blood will revitalize the paper, but photographer Bob Salas (Michael Rispoli) and possibly-psychotic writer Moberg (Giovanni Ribisi) are less sanguine. Still, Kemp throws himself in with aplomb.

He quickly catches the eye of Sanderson (Aaron Eckhardt), a local businessman, and Chenault (Amber Heard), Sanderson’s wild-child fiancée. And, naturally, Chenault catches Kemp’s eye in return, though he’s loath to upset a powerful man like Sanderson, especially since Sanderson wants Kemp to do some surreptitious public relations work for his project to build up an as-yet-untouched local island. But as Kemp lives in San Juan he’s brought face to face with the effect that this Caribbean gold rush is having on the local population. And this is the crucible in which a crusading, idealistic, liberal journalist will be forged.

And of course some zany things happen. But since it’s early in his career, Thompson hasn’t really gotten his gonzo on yet. These escapades pale in comparison with even one episode from Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, which is sort of a let-down. Director Bruce Robinson does have a solid comedic sensibility — as evidenced in Withnail and I — but he just can’t hold a candle to Terry Gilliam in his ability to work on the other side of Thompson’s looking-glass.

We know Depp can play Thompson, since he has before so successfully, but I’m still left wondering how accurate this is. Kemp comes off as basically Duke all over again, albeit less twitchy and disjointed. Eckhardt also plays Sanderson as one of his own stock characters, which isn’t an altogether bad thing since he really is good at them. But the really great acting comes from Ribisi; he’s got a wonderful willingness to go over the top in service of a truly bizarre character.

But what really threw me off was the way the banter is peppered with seemingly precognitive references like “the Irish guy will win, but they’ll never let him live”, or “some day they’ll elect someone who will make [Nixon] look like a liberal”. I don’t know if these are original to Robinson’s script or if they were introduced when Thompson revised the 1960 novel before its 1998 publication. Either way, they proved more than a little distracting.

I could be interested in another dose of Fear and Loathing, or I could be interested in a liberal crusade, but The Rum Diary tries to be both and ends up doing neither well. Thompson’s disjointed, rambling prose necessitates a disjointed, rambling story. When you try to use it to tell a more straightforward narrative, it tends to rattle itself apart.

Worth It: no.
Bechdel Test: fail.

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