The Rum Diary manages to successfully capture the spirit of the source material – even if the result is a scattered piece of filmmaking.
For anyone familiar with writer Hunter S. Thompson, it’s especially appropriate that actor Johnny Depp is headlining the author’s latest novel-turned-film adaptation, The Rum Diary – as both men are known for especially intense (and bizarre) work ethics. Depp portrays some of the most oddball and intricate characters in Hollywood and Thompson is credited as the founder of Gonzo Journalism – an approach to reporting where the writer actually tosses objectivity (and sometimes fact) out the window and directly engages with the various lifestyles and personalities at the center of a story (to get at a larger “truth”).
However, does the film version of Paul Kemp, the fictional main character in The Rum Diary who also becomes enveloped in his job, offer an intriguing and cinematic look at the printed source material as well as make use of the stable of filmmaking talent that brought the movie to the screen?
Fortunately The Rum Diary is mostly an entertaining adaptation of Thompson’s story – though, much like the book, few of Kemp’s actual adventures work together to build a cohesive narrative. Instead, the film plays out like a series of “moments” – which, by the end, may not provide the kind of payoff that some moviegoers might be expecting. We accept this kind of division in books, as we relish in the written language, but there isn’t enough visual flair in The Rum Diary to ultimately work the same magic on screen.
The Rum Diary adaptation, for anyone loosely familiar with the book, follows the fictional character (and journalist) Paul Kemp as he tires of his life in New York and travels to San Juan, Puerto Rico to work as a reporter (Thompson also worked as a San Juan journalist during the 1960s). Kemp exemplifies Thompson’s penchant for reporters who get too caught up in the stories they are chasing – as the fresh-off-the-plane American quickly engages in a series of outrageous and drunken misadventures. However, despite his penchant for drinking, Kemp is sought out by Hal Sanderson, a local businessman (played by Aaron Eckhart) who wants to use the writer’s talents for an enterprise that isn’t strictly legal. His time with Sanderson also puts Kemp in close proximity with the business tycoon’s fiancé, Chenault (Amber Heard) – who is especially alluring to the reporter.
Depp carries the project with his usual knack for quirky characters and comedic timing but the overarching film gets bogged down by attempting to provide film versions of the most pivotal (and a few psychedelic) scenes from the novel – even if they have little meaning in the context of the storyline that is put at center stage by the filmmakers. As a result, given the lack of a cohesive through line, it’s not surprising that The Rum Diary is actually the first film from director Bruce Robinson (Withnail and I) in 19 years (he also wrote the screenplay). Disappointing critical reaction to his last two projects caused him to withdraw and focus on writing instead.
This isn’t to say that The Rum Diary is a failure, because it’s actually an enjoyable film – but the movie falls short of either a profound adaptation of Thompson’s book (mind bending warts and all) or a dumbed down version with a clear narrative focus. As a result, Robinson’s attempt at finding a middle ground for The Rum Diary robs the story of much of its original insight while also failing to deliver a satisfying progression of interconnected events.
As mentioned, Depp offers a solid performance as Kemp that, in spite of all the rum drinking, bears little resemblance to his all-too-familiar Jack Sparrow shtick. The actor still gets a number of cartoonish moments (as a result of his circumstances) but for the most part, offers a solid focal point in a film that features a myriad of oddball characters running around. The chemistry between Chenault and Kemp is surprisingly tender, given that the story revolves around a “love at first sight” motif – and Heard, in spite of limited screen time, manages to showcase a couple of different sides to her character. That said, despite what audiences will see on screen (as a result of the performances), the relationship between the two characters is given very little time to develop, and by the end, entirely bypasses any emotion or fallout from the various situations the pair endures. There are very few “tough conversations” in The Rum Diary – as many altercations devolve into passive aggression or happen entirely off screen.
Most of the other performances get the job done, but despite a rich source material, appear as merely quirky caricatures in the final film: Aaron Eckhart’s Hal Sanderson is a smooth-talking but greedy businessman that owns a bedazzled turtle, Giovanni Ribisi’s Moberg is a filthy drunkard who listens to records of Hitler speeches, and Richard Jenkins’ Edward J. Lotterman is a no-nonsense newsman who is extra sensitive about his toupee. As book characters, the characters grow and reform in our minds (as Thompson fleshed them out page after page) but, in the film world, they don’t change or offer additional insight – instead, they merely act as springboards that push Kemp in different directions. Only Michael Rispoli’s portrayal of a fellow reporter, Bob Sales, offers a unique and compelling addition to the main cast – providing some of the film’s most entertaining moments.
The Rum Diary may be a tough sell – as fans of the book will likely find that the film fails to capture some of the more profound ideas presented in the printed version and adult audiences looking for an entertaining trip to the movie theater may find the overarching story to be somewhat unsatisfying by the end. However, with a number of intriguing performances (specifically Depp and Rispoli), The Rum Diary manages to successfully capture the spirit of the source material – even if the result is a scattered piece of filmmaking.
If you’re still on the fence about The Rum Diary, check out the trailer below:
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The Rum Diary is now in theaters.