‘The Rum Diary’ is Hunter S. Thompson Watered Down
The Rum Diary, when compared to Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, has a lot less drugs, a lot more booze, a few more women, and is a lot less “gonzo.” Directed by Bruce Robinson, the film adaptation of Hunter S. Thompson’s first novel of the same name (thought to be a semi-autobiographical account of Thompson’s years as a young journalist in San Juan, Puerto Rico) is an off-beat, rambling comedy, starring who else, but the eccentric, multifaceted Johnny Depp.
The Rum Diary’s main character, Paul Kemp (Depp) appears to be more clean-cut than Thompson’s later creations, such as Raoul Duke, the psychedelically altered, (possibly psychopathically disturbed), main character of 1998’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. However, Kemp, who shows up to his first day of work as a reporter for the local newspaper hung-over, donning sunglasses, and claiming, “I tend to avoid alcohol, when I can,” soon proves to be quite the barfly. He becomes involved in several of his news stories, as Thompson’s gonzo journalism is notorious for; or rather, Kemp’s drunken debauchery becomes the front page story for other Puerto Rican papers.
Though it should come as no surprise that Depp had agreed to play Kemp, his involvement in such a disjointed version of his long time friend’s writing will certainly raise some fans’ eyebrows. He and Thompson were close before Thompson’s suicide in 2005, and Depp’s role in the 1998 film adaptation of Fear and Loathing, seemed to prove his support for the writer’s work. Yet Depp’s portrayal of Kemp does not stay true to the novel, as the film adaptation of him is much less spontaneous a character, and therefore, seems to be more of a supporting role than one of the protagonist.
To be fair, Thompson’s novel does lack a clear plot, making film adaptation difficult. The novel focuses on Kemp’s internal dialog and is written in the stream-of-consciousness manner that characterizes Thompson’s style of new journalism. But the absence of Kemp’s thoughts and musings in Depp’s portrayal leaves out much of the character’s personality. Moreover, plot points that are intense in the novel, are largely downplayed in the film.
In one scene, Chenault, (played by Amber Heard) the spontaneous, blond-haired bombshell and the object of Kemp’s affections, dances naked in a club, only to be subsequently dragged off by island locals. Chenault’s stripping in the middle of the dance floor is explained in much detail in the novel, though it is left up to the reader’s imagination exactly what happened to the girl while she was drunkenly in the possession of strange men. Although a play by play of the novel is not to be expected, Robinson could have given his interpretation of Chenault’s disappearance a little more thought, but this incident is nearly ignored in the film, lacking even the tiny snippets of information that Thompson provides about the situation.
The same is true of Kemp’s visit to a Puerto Rican jail. One would think that spending a night in a foreign prison would be quite the frightening experience, but instead of displaying the suspense that the novel offers, this scene is portrayed as a comedic incident. Such subplots could have been easily embellished to create a more action-packed film. Instead, Robinson chose to throw in subplots of his own that though humorous and entertaining, make the story hard to take seriously. These disorganized and confusing extensions of the plot only continue further as Kemp and his friend and co-worker, Sala (Michael Rispoli), bet on cock fights, Moburg (Giovanni Ribisi), Sala’s nomadic roommate is introduced as a Neo-Nazi bum, and Kemp falls in love with Chenault within the beginning of the movie, leaving the viewer in much disarray to the happenings.
In addition to these changes, the character of Yeamon, a co-worker and friend of Kemp’s, is completely omitted from the film, though specks of him can be seen floundering in Sanderson (Aaron Eckhardt), a co-worker who tries to rope Kemp into a plan to build a resort in San Juan. In the novel, it is Yeamon who gets Kemp, Sala, and himself thrown into jail, and it is later Yeamon’s fault that they all have to leave the island. Without Yeamon’s rage issues, The Rum Diary’s plot is watered down like a splash of rum with too much cola.
Depp is known for his zany roles in films such as Edward Scissorhands, Pirates of the Caribbean, and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. His portrayal of Duke in Fear and Loathing was nearly as flamboyant as his Captain Jack Sparrow, sporting an unbuttoned Hawaiian shirt and chain-smoking cigarettes, using a long cigarette holder, all while spewing his drug-induced gibberish. However, Depp’s portrayal of Kemp is exceptionally flat and boring, making even the most sober viewer wonder, ‘where has the rum gone?’ While the film’s introduction of the red-eyed, hung-over Kemp does develop character, it’s nothing compared to the novel’s introduction, in which Kemp is beating up an elderly man on the plane to San Juan. Depp’s Kemp is merely a bystander to the trouble that his inebriated friends get into.
And yet, though The Rum Diary strays from Thompson’s story, and lacks the depth that he intended, the film hilariously displays the shenanigans that Kemp and his co-workers get themselves into. At one point, the front seat is stolen from Sala’s tiny, sky blue Fiat, and Kemp sits on his lap in order to drive the car home. The two are rocking back-and-forth to avoid placing too much weight on the axle, and of course, they pass a police car. They never get the car home, as they are most likely still drunk on this early morning drive after their arrest from the night before. The one night that Kemp and Sala decide to stay home from the bar, they ingest some unnamed narcotic; a scene that allows viewers to experience the characters’ wacky hallucinations and is reminiscent of Fear and Loathing.
“I don’t know how to write as myself,” Kemp confesses during the film. In the end, it seems that he finds his voice, though we are not told how or what he does with it. Perhaps Robinson (for whom The Rum Diary was the end of a nearly twenty year hiatus from directing), should take a lesson from Kemp and use his own voice, rather than blemish that of another artist.
Rating: 1 out of 4