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I was twenty-nine when I read The Rum Diary and it changed my life forever. I’m not a big drinker let alone a violent alcoholic, but Hunter S. Thompson’s novel resonated with me in that particular moment because it’s so much more than that. At its core it’s about reaching a turning point in your career, about making the transition from boy to man, about turning thirty and deciding what kind of person you want to be, what kind of life you want to live, now that you’re staring down the barrel of what’s left of it. As a movie, The Rum Diary wants to be the same thing, but ends up as something completely different.
The movie writer/director Bruce Robinson made out of Thompson’s work is rooted in a world of cartoonishly evil white people and downtrodden Puerto Ricans, things which were only a sidebar in a book with much loftier aspirations. Here those villainous rich bastards who lack only mustaches for twirling, loom large over a story which seems better suited to something else. It starts by introducing us to Paul Kemp, an alcoholic holed up in a hotel room, awaiting his breakfast. Johnny Depp gives the camera his Hunter S. Thompson squint (Kemp was loosely based on The Rum Diary author) and instead of letting us see him stumbling out of his hotel room the film instantly flashes to his first day at work.
It’s 1960 and Kemp has been hired by Puerto Rico’s only English language newspaper, a fact I know because I’ve read the book, but which the film never gets around to going over. His editor, a stressed out American named Lotterman, assigns him to write horoscopes while ranting endlessly about the big role Kemp will play in saving the struggling San Juan Star. Kemp is only marginally interested and instead embarks on a journey into the seediest, most rum-soaked corners of Puerto Rico with a photographer named Sala (Michael Rispoli). Or at least he starts to. It’s not long before he’s snatched up by a wealthy real estate tycoon named Sanderson (Aaron Eckhart), and starts to fall in love with his girlfriend, a beautiful blonde named Chenault (Amber Heard). She likes to swim naked, what’s not to love?
What’s not to love is that Chenault is barely given enough story to become much more than a caricature of a wild, thrill-seeking party girl. She never really finds a place in this film, nor do most of the movie’s other characters. They’re all victims of awkward editing and bad script adapting which attempts to reduce the number of characters in the book by combining them. This results in a scene where Sanderson becomes angry at Kemp for no reason at all. If you’ve read the book you’ll know he’s mad at Kemp because he’s re-enacting a scene Paul has with a completely different, deleted character. But if you haven’t read the book, you’ll just shrug your shoulders and think this movie’s a piece of shit.
It’s not a piece of shit, it’s visually appealing and well acted. Yet The Rum Diary fails to capture any of the brilliance of Thompson’s novel, and whenever it gets close, it somehow botches it. A brilliant speech by Depp is cut off before it’s allowed to really linger or sink in. Chenault’s big moment is perfectly filmed, but fails to resonate because the script has already missed much of the importance of her character. The Rum Diary never quite seems to know where to go in the process of meandering around the Caribbean, yet it never actually dishonors the spirit of Thompson’s work. Somehow this makes the whole thing seem worse.
The Rum Diary is a mediocre movie made with the best of intentions. Hunter S. Thompson would hate it. Hunter S. Thompson was never mediocre. He had his highs and his lows, but even at his worst, he always went down swinging and shouting and firing off rounds into the crowd. This take on The Rum Diary doesn’t have that kind of crazy inside it. The Rum Diary changed my life when I read it at 29, this movie will never change anyone. In the words of Thompson, “it never got weird enough for me.”