Movie Review: The Rum Diary

I review plenty of film adaptations of beloved books, and when I do, I generally try to ignore the book altogether and consider the film on its own merits — it just seems the best and fairest way to do it. However, that’s impossible for me here. The Rum Diary is just too alive in my mind for it not to color my entire viewing experience. (Just so you know where we stand).

The first thing you have to know about The Rum Diary is that it’s a much different book than Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. In Fear and Loathing, Hunter S. Thompson was writing a stylized account of himself as an established journalist on a clear mission (to find the American Dream). The Rum Diary is a novel Thompson wrote when he was 22 (though not published until much later) and still trying to figure out his path in life. Where Fear and Loathing was specific, Rum Diary is crafted from broad strokes. It isn’t particularly plot-driven, and succeeds largely on the strength of the themes and on Hunter’s prose. In fact, despite it being one of my favorite books, I don’t think I could’ve told you much about the plot or any of the characters going in. What had stayed with me was that it was about a 20-something year-old writer terrified of getting old and selling out, written by that same 20-something-year old writer, and read by me, when I was– well, I think you can fill in the rest. An equally scary prospect was selling out’s alternative, sticking to your principles only to have them make you nothing but poor and embittered.

“No matter how much I wanted all those things that I needed money to buy, there was some devilish current pushing me off in another direction – toward anarchy and poverty and craziness. That maddening delusion that a man can lead a decent life without hiring himself out as a Judas Goat.”

That was the crux of the book for me, and I was happy to find that same spirit driving the movie. Seeing it was kind of like meeting an old friend.

On film, one of the things that stuck out (other than the gorgeous drunken romanticism of the setting – 1960 Puerto Rico, where Thompson himself worked at a failing newspaper) were the limitations of the story. Hot off the plane from New York, Johnny Depp’s Paul Kemp shows up in San Juan to work at the newspaper, where he meets fellow journalists Sala and Moberg (Michael Rispoli and Giovanni Ribisi — the “Good” and “The Ugly” of the story, if you will), along with the always great Richard Jenkins as Lotterman, the editor in chief of the failing San Juan Star. Kemp, a failed novelist, wants to write about the truth of the world as he sees it, and Lotterman wants him to keep selling a bogus, sanitized idea of Puerto Rico (an analogy for the American Dream, basically), to keep the paper in business. Kemp soon meets Sanderson (Aaron Eckhart), “The Bad” of the story, a rich guy who seems to have it all, and can share it with Kemp, if only Kemp will write something horrible that he doesn’t believe in. Does Kemp sell out to get what Sanderson’s got — girls, fast cars, fancy clothes, and fine houses — or be true to himself at the risk of turning out like Sala or Moberg, burnt out shells of men who stink of booze and piss and regret?

“What passed for society was a loud, giddy whirl of thieves and pretentious hustlers, a dull sideshow full of quacks and clowns and philistines with gimp mentalities.”

I say limitations, because when you break it down, Sanderson is essentially the proverbial greedy developer, mean to the natives and almost cartoonishly callous. Naturally, Kemp gets caught up in his world and falls in love with his girl (Chenault, played by the beautiful but limited Amber Heard) — a basic plot structure it shares with roughly eight trillion movies. (A line from Gangs of New York comes to mind, about it’s surprisingly cozy under the wing of a dragon).

But Rum Diary the book was never really about plot, and neither is Rum Diary the movie. It’s more about the theme, the romantic mood, and most of all, the exuberant wordplay. It nails the beautiful turns of phrase so well that you’ll forgive it some of the slightly hokey hijinks. When Lotterman returns to his office after a screaming match with Moberg, he shouts, “That man is hygenically unacceptable! Did you see his nose? Blackheads like braille!”

When Moberg (Ribisi, who steals every scene he’s in), describes what he wants to do to Lotterman after the same fight, he pantomimes blowing Lotterman away with “a slide-action f*ck you gun.”

“Disgusting as he usually was, on rare occasions he showed flashes of stagnant intelligence. But his brain was so rotted with drink and dissolute living that whenever he put it to work it behaved like an old engine that had gone haywire from being dipped in lard.”

The other real limitation of the film is Heard. She’s never much more than eye candy, which is a bit of a disappointment, as you generally want your protagonist to have better reasons for falling in love with someone than that they’re hot and slutty. But that’s not to say it’s totally unrealistic. They are on an island, after all (and nothing fans the flames of lust like limited options).

I don’t know how people who haven’t read the book will experience the movie, but I can imagine it seeming a bit hokey in a vacuum. But there’s a certain, artful, slightly tongue-in-cheek way Hunter had of dealing with the broad strokes of his story that made it so winning, and Bruce Robinson’s movie does a fine job of capturing that. Kemp’s character is almost an archetype, an angry young man railing against an unjust world. Instead of trying to intellectualize that feeling or disguise it with nuance, Hunter went over the top with it in an almost tongue-in-cheek way, acknowledging the naivete of some of his feelings without losing the visceral impact of their emotions. When Kemp says things like that he’s “putting the bastards of the world on notice,” and “next time some greasy moron starts bullshitting me, I’m going after him” some people may feel embarrassed by the earnestness of it. I could understand that if you take it completely at face value. But what I feel even more acutely is the winking subtext of it, of a young Hunter creating a sort of superhero for himself. (This intention becomes expressly clear in the film’s sarcastic epilogue).

And that’s kind of what The Rum Diary always was — a superhero origin story for romantic misanthrope writers, a hero’s journey for a Superman who drinks too much and tells the world’s bastards to go fuck themselves, who’ll live happily ever after as long as he always tells the truth exactly how he sees it. That might be silly and naive, but… Goddamn it, man! Doesn’t it feel good to believe? Doesn’t it make you feel inspired? I’ll drink to that.


Other notes:

  • One of the scenes from the book that stood out most vividly in my mind was Chenault getting gang raped. I don’t have the book because I lent it out far too many times and God knows where it is now, but the scene is missing from the movie. I didn’t expect it to be graphically depicted or anything, but the way the movie deals with it is just be confusing. It’s hard to even know what they’re trying to imply.
  • It’s 1960. Why is Aaron Eckhart’s chest shaved?
  • I could’ve done without Johnny Depp’s hair dangling in his face every five seconds. CUT IT OR COMB IT, HIPPIE.