More eulogy than movie.
The Rum Diary is an adaptation of Hunter S. Thompson’s early novel fictionalizing his experiences as a journalist-for-hire in 1950s Puerto Rico. Once again, Johnny Depp is on hand as the Thompson stand-in, and once again he fails to do justice to the man’s art.
If Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Depp’s previous Thompson adventure, did a disservice to the gonzo journalist by focusing almost exclusively on his druggy weirdness, this rendition, made after his death, suffers from the exact opposite problem. It’s too respectful. Just as eulogies tend to offer whitewashed versions of their subjects, The Rum Diary gives its Thompson alter ego – reporter Paul Kemp (Depp) – a sense of moral righteousness that I doubt Thompson himself would ever have claimed. Thompson hated phonies; in a lot of ways, The Rum Diary is one.
The moral dilemma at the heart of the film involves the economic boom that has hit Puerto Rico – and the exploitation of the islanders that it depends upon. After an early visit to a Puerto Rican slum, Kemp goes marching into his editor’s office demanding they run an expose about the conditions there. He’s told to write puff pieces about smiling American tourists instead. He agrees for a while – and even flirts with a PR job for a soulless American developer (Aaron Eckhart) – but by the end of the film he’s been honed into a journalistic Che Guevara.
Thompson may have liked that image – he was known to favor Che t-shirts – but that’s not quite how his work reads. In his writing, he sounds less like the leader of a protest parade than the grumbling, cynical observer of the parade as it passed by. Indeed, Fear and Loathing was as much about his disillusionment over the failure of the countercultural movement as it was about the hypocrisy of the American dream.
The Rum Diary has touches of disillusionment – far more than Fear and Loathing, which is why I feel it’s the slightly better film – but they’re often swept under the rug in favor of heroic postures. Early on in the movie, Kemp’s editor dismisses one of his pieces as having “too many adjectives, too much cynicism.” More of the latter is exactly what The Rum Diary needed.