Director: Bruce Robinson
The source novel of The Rum Diary was first written by a young Hunter S. Thompson in the early 1960s, but went unpublished until 1998, when Thompson mania was reaching new heights as Johnny Depp ushered Fear and Loathing In Las Vegas to the big screen. Thirteen years after it was finally published, and six years after Thompson’s death, Depp does the same again with this Diary from the author’s early days, written before he rejected fiction to become the Doctor of Journalism so beloved of many a fan of finest American wit and peyote.
Like Terry Gilliam’s Fear and Loathing, Bruce Robinson’s adaptation has a choice: please the fans or reach beyond to the ‘fucking reptile zoo’ that is the cinema lobby. Gilliam kept it niche but, in adapting and directing this most reluctant of debut novels, Robinson opts for the latter; to judge from the confused and utterly reprehensible blather emanating from those pus piles of teenagers sitting in the row behind this critic at the screening, he may have made the wrong choice. Watching functioning alcoholic Kemp (your Thompson stand-in for the evening, played by Depp) try to write anything for an English-language rag in 1960s Puerto Rico is not the trip we’ve been promised. If the film is not bathed in sunshine reflected off the blue waters and Amber Heard’s ruby lips, it’s a grimy little cesspool inhabited by wimps and/or drunks with little concern beyond themselves (though personal hygiene isn’t a priority either). When not sneering at incompetent editor Lotterman (Richard Jenkins and a horrible toupée) Kemp gets into hijinks accompanied by photographer Sala (a sweating and roly-poly Michael Rispoli) before being roped into a property scam by Sanderson (Aaron Eckhart in ‘smarmy bastard’ mode) and eyeing up Sanderson’s fiancée (Heard, hubba-hubba). All these plots have moments to seduce the eye and tickle the funny bone (Giovanni Ribisi, take a bow as a pickled cousin of Jack Sparrow), but all the jewel-encrusted turtles in the Caribbean can’t overcome episodic plotting that drops plotlines and picks up others on a whim. Thompson appreciated a certain disorder, but this is insanity at its most inane. There are episodes (dropping acid, rescuing a car, running from local yokels), but there is no story. Laughs come only in perioic fits, whilst attempts at Thompson-esque melancholy feel shoehorned in; like rum followed by an absinthe chaser, these disparate elements simply will not mix.
If you want a definitive take on alcoholism from Robinson, Richard E. Grant did it best whilst demanding “cakes and fine wine!” Thompson has been better handled on celluloid (for best results, try Where The Buffalo Roam); The Rum Diary is just too unwieldy to survive the transition from page to screen. His leaping from styles of Mencken to FitzGerald to Hemingway and to his own inimitable style held the ramshackle plots together on the page; there’s no such luxury here, only a dissatisfied mess from people too blinded by Thompson’s brilliance to notice.