The long awaited screen adaptation of Hunter S. Thompson’s early novel, The Rum Diary delivers a uniquely lucid insight into the mind of the later Gonzo writer – a semi-autobiographical account of a young reporter trying to establish his style and voice in San Juan during the late fifties.
Depp plays a fairly naïve and toned down version of Thompson in Paul Kemp. This is a more constrained character than his alter-ego in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, yet the loyalty (to both the physical Thompson and his alternate forms) with which Depp inhabits the fluctuating character of Kemp is rewarding. I say fluctuating, as Kemp is really a combination of two characters in the novel, his namesake but also the omitted Yeamon – the pair being two sides of the same coin. The fact that Yeamon was written out of the script really strengthens the focus of the film as, with a clear protagonist, the audience’s ability to follow the already sporadic plot line is reinforced. Similarly, Sanderson (Aaron Eckhart) is singled out for the purposes of the film as the archetypal slick and sleazy crook – the representative of ‘the system’ and its oppressive nature. Nevertheless, sometimes the real antagonist forces were lost throughout the narrative as the shady character of Sanderson vies with the looming threat of development and colonisation to be the real enemy.
Meanwhile, Giovanni Ribisi is cast as the brilliantly disturbing Moburg in one of the film’ s most developed performances. Typical of the psychotic personality that Thompson loved to create, Moburg is twisted to the point of comedy and well suited to be depicted by Ribisi. When coupled with Lotterman (Richard Jenkins) the pair provide hyperbolic conflict that underpins the contentious mood towards the beginning of the film. Where The Rum Diary really excels is in the immersive culture of fifties San Juan, with open top cars, bowling shirts and cigars aplenty, the atmosphere is spot on.
Unfortunately, toward the end of The Rum Diary, the focal point gets lost. Though this is no surprise when dealing with a Thompson adaptation, it will probably be off-putting for those viewers who are perhaps less familiar with his work. In essence, that is probably the only failing of this movie; it is not entirely accessible as, to some degree, it relies on assumed knowledge.
Nurtured since the manuscripts rediscovery in the late nineties, it would appear that The Rum Diary has been a long coming labour of love for Johnny Depp. While the suicide of Thompson understandably set shooting back, promised appearances from Benicio Del Toro and Brad Pitt, among others, never came to fruition and it is largely thanks to Depp himself (and Director, Bruce Robinson) that it ever made it to the screen. It seems that the real value in The Rum Diary is as a dedication to Depp’s once friend, Hunter S. Thompson, and to fans of the Gonzo journalist – this is by no means an introduction for sightseers and tourists into the mind of the writer, and neither is representative of his works as a whole. It has to be said that, despite the few flaws in this film, as an interpretation The Rum Diary has still succeeded as a work of cinematic art.