There are two ways to look at Hunter S. Thompson’s belatedly published novel “The Rum Diary.” You can either consider it the unvarnished work of a rage-fueled prodigy discovering his voice or a 200-page account explaining why Thompson never became a fiction writer.
While the arguably aimless plot line makes it an almost dismissible piece of work, it still boasts plenty of redeeming qualities. But unlike Thompson's pre-Gonzo creation, Bruce Robinson's cinematic adaptation plays out more like a dizzying flurry of heart-racing vignettes, only to end up underwhelming, with more style than substance.
Set in the tropical haven of San Juan, Puerto Rico, Johnny Depp stars as the Thompson alter-ego Paul Kemp — the boozehound journalist who’s accepted a job with the city’s San Juan Star. In a general sense, the film remains loyal to the source material save for all the necessary dramatic flourishes. Robinson captures all the cynicism of Thompson’s writing, depicting San Juan as a forgotten paradise slowly collapsing beneath the weight of rampant crime and corruption.
It’s 1960 and a newly employed Kemp finds himself at the mercy of a surly veteran editor (Richard Jenkins) at a newspaper barely slogging along in its last throes. Travel-worn and surrounded by an ever-shrinking staff of colleagues much too beleaguered and inebriated for the daily grind of journalism, Kemp befriends an alcoholic veteran photographer named Sala (Michael Rispoli). And about eight beers and two dozen cigarettes later, the two find themselves swept away into the debauched underworld of San Juan.
From there on, trouble seems to keep finding Kemp at every corner. As part of an elaborate real estate scheme, he’s recruited to write promotional fluff for local slime ball Sanderson (Aaron Eckhart) only to simultaneously fall in love with his seductive fiancée Chenault (Amber Heard). What unfolds is a sordid tale of envy, drunken escapades and one reporter’s quest for the truth in a world ruled by lies.
“The Rum Diary” excels with a whip-smart script and delivers all the snappy dialogue and entrancing narration of its source material but much like the book itself, it lacks a cohesive center and culminates into something that looks more like a series of jumbled vignettes and awkwardly forced homage (there’s a scene of Kemp scowling at Thompson’s own political arch nemesis while watching the Nixon-Kennedy debate with Sala).
Hearing and watching Thompson’s arresting prose come to life is always a thrill and so maybe Gonzo diehards will have a few things to look forward to in “The Rum Diary.” There are some powerful moments for sure, but as a whole, the film suffers in structure and narrative. From Eckhart’s uninspired performance as Sanderson to the ill-timed climax, it all just seems too underdeveloped, too timid to be deemed a passable tribute for a man who was notorious for never dealing in half measures.
So buy the ticket, take the ride, but expect to walk away shortchanged.
2 out of 4 stars
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