PORTLAND, Oregon, U.S.A. – It was with high hopes that I headed to the local theater, to catch a late showing of The Rum Diary, Johnny Depp’s new film, a movie loosely based on the Hunter S. Thompson book of the same name.
The rum diary was the first of Thompson’s books I read, ages ago, at a stage of in between, when literature was still relatively safe for me, before I branched out, and found the likes of Thompson, or ‘Gonzo,’ Jack Kerouac, and J.D. Salinger.
Once I read The Rum Diary, that stage of innocence was all over.
There was edge, no fabrication, little exaggeration, just honest truth in that book. It changed the way I looked at writing, and forever changed what volumes took up space upon my bookshelf.
So maybe it is because my hopes were so high, that I feel the need to write a purely scathing review.
The Rum Diary is a Hollywood film. This does not work in its favor.
Anyone who has read Thompson understands that his writing is very much not Hollywood-compatible.
Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas – the screen version also starred Depp – worked, simply because of the exorbitant drug use, but if you look at both the movie and the book, you will realize that not much happens.
The same goes for The Rum Diary. A plot line is fairly non-existent. While that works for the book – the Gonzo writing takes over and you could read for hours on the inner musings of our lead character Paul Kemp, as long as it is in the Gonzo Narration style.
In film, the only real way for that narration style to come across over the screen is in visual effects. Unfortunately, The Rum Diary leaves little opportunity for the essence of Thompson to come across. Instead, it focuses more upon the beautiful scenery of San Juan.
That’s enjoyable in and of itself, sure, but not what I had come for.
The acting falls flat as well. Depp, who obviously also played a pseudo-Thompson in Fear and Loathing, does seem to be trying to do the Hunter name justice.
Unfortunately, he finds himself in the position of playing the Thompson we all know and love, the insane heathen who was equal parts brilliant, and, in his own entertaining ways, very stupid.
It’s a bad position for Depp to be in, because this was before Thompson was Gonzo.
The Rum Diary, an early work of Thompson’s published several decades later in 1999, was well written, entertaining, and strongly showed the aggressive leaning that would take control in his later writing, but Thompson at that time was not yet the Gonzo we know.
As such, we end up with a film where Depp founders from scene to scene, at some points appearing to be playing Thompson, and at others, playing Paul Kemp, who represents who Thompson really was when he wrote The Rum Diary.
The difference is gigantic, but somehow escaped the director, writers, and Depp himself.
Speaking of the writers, I will honestly say that they represent my biggest disappointment in this movie. To sell to a market, they did the obvious thing; they tried to write a Gonzo movie out of the aforementioned very much NOT Gonzo material.
The biggest flub here is a scene in the movie that did not appear in the book. It may seem small to some, but to me, it speaks volumes.
In this scene, Paul Kemp and his roommate and coworker, Sala, take some psychotropic drugs for the first time. This is a cheap way to try to cash in on the Gonzo everyone knows. It is completely irreverent to the plot, and as I watched it, my eyes dropped in disappointment.
The Rum Diary showcases a time when Thompson had yet to find psychotropic drugs, a time when he was much more innocent, when all there was, was, well, rum!
Speaking of which, the drinking is vastly downplayed. This may seem a surprising thing to say to anyone that has only seen the movie, for the lead characters never seem to stop.
If a drinking game were to be played during The Rum Diary, the rules being you would drink every time a character did, you probably wouldn’t even get to remember the second half of the flick. But, anyone who’s read the book will point out that for every scene of drunken debauchery, there are three in the book.
In fact, it’s hard to go a paragraph in the book without reading something akin to drunken rage, or humor.
The movie is not bad, but horribly average, and if the source material had not been Thompson, I would not feel so strongly about its mediocrity. Many a book has been marred by its film interpretation, but Thompson deserves better.
In the words of a far more well known, rum-swilling Depp character:
“Why is the rum gone?”
Pity. I had just about forgiven Depp for Pirates of the Caribbean, Two through Four.