Dear Reader, let me just start by saying I am a HUGE fan of Hunter S. Thompson. I have read most of his stuff, I have enjoyed viewing his persona through interviews and documentaries (including the excellent Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson released in 2008). Fuck, I even have two tattoos dedicated to the great man, one of the man himself, and one of the Gonzo symbol he used when running for the position of sheriff of Aspen in 1970.
Hunter wrote a lot of brilliant stuff before his suicide in 2005, with two major standouts. One is Kingdom of Fear, a collection of works that reads as a semi-autobiography. The other is The Rum Diary, a novel that Hunter wrote in the early 1960’s but wasn’t published until 1998. So naturally, I was excited when the film version of The Rum Diary was first announced, and eventually released. I loved Terry Gilliam’s adaptation of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, and with Johnny Depp returning to play the “Hunter” character again in this, I expected great things. But man, this version of The Rum Diary, what a fucking disappointment. Not a bad movie by any means, but not a good one either.
The Rum Diary begins with Paul Kemp (Johnny Depp) arriving in San Juan, Peurto Rico in 1960 to write for a local newspaper called The San Juan Star, run by a man named Lotterman (played by the always awesome Richard Jenkins). After a short time he is approached by Sanderson (Aaron Eckhart), a wealthy entrepenuer and property developer who’s into some shady deals with some very shady people. He offers Kemp a shitload of money to work for him, writing good things about the not necessarily good resort that Sanderson and his buddies are planning to build on an island near the capital, taking advantage of San Juan and its people. Kemp reluctantly takes the job, partly because he becomes hopelessly obsessed with Chenault (Amber Heard), Sanderson’s fiancée. Kemp has to decide whether to take the money, or take the moral high ground.
Unfortunately, this film simply missed a lot of good opportunities. Being such a huge fan of the book, it’s hard to view The Rum Diary purely based on its own merits. What I can say is that the film starts off very well, has a lot of good laughs, and establishes its characters and its sense of place with ease. But fuck me, does it fall apart in the third act.
Comparing the book to the film, it is easy to see why. Yeoman, one of the most interesting characters in the book, is not in the film at all. In the book Yeoman, a man who works with Kemp at the newspaper, is the fiancée of Chenault, and Kemp is attracted to his charisma. In the film, Sanderson takes Yeoman’s place, the idea seemingly being that having Chenault, the object of Kemp’s affection, being betrothed to the powerful Sanderson increases the level of tension to a point that wasn’t present in the book. A fantastic and hilarious opening sequence involving Kemp’s plane ride to San Juan is also omitted, the film instead starting when Kemp first arrives. And without going into too much detail, a sequence in the book involving Chenault and a room full of young, dangerous men, is completely mishandled in the film, and I would believe that someone watching the film without knowing the book would not fully understand what is being implied.
What really boggles my mind is that I would think the reason a lot of this material was changed to add more focus and a sense of purpouse to the narrative, as the book is admittedly a bit sprawling, and sometimes lacking direction. But all these changes just make things even less focussed. The motivation of some characters becomes less clear. The romantic angle between Kemp and Chenault is handled particularly badly. For me, that was one of the parts of the book that felt most important, but it almost becomes entirely redundant here, and at one point in the film, it becomes forgotten about almost entirely. It’s a shame, because done properly, it could have been wonderful, and it certainly would have given the talented and lovely Amber Heard more to do.
The film is shot well, the comedic elements are handled nicely, and there are some great performances to be found, particularly from Richard Jenkins and Michael Rispoli as Kemp’s friend, Sala. In fact, the relationship between Kemp and Sala may be the best element of the film, with Depp and Rispoli displaying very good chemistry. Which is more than can be said for Depp and Amber Heard, and especially Aaron Eckhart and Heard. For a couple that’s meant to be engaged, they feel so… unattached.
Like I said earlier, it’s not a bad film, but it’s not one I can really recommend either. If you’re a fan of the book, you might want to view it, as it is nice seeing some of the characters bought to life. If you haven’t read the book… don’t bother with the film. You’re not really missing much.
2 out of 5.