The work of the late Hunter S. Thompson has been brought to the big-screen a couple of times now with Where the Buffalo Roam and more famously Terry Gilliam’s appropriately bizarre Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Now to add to the pile we have The Rum Diary, from writer/director Bruce Robinson (Withnail & I), a decisively less memorable and infinitely safer film than one would hope for based on the work of such a fantastically mad-cap author.
Johnny Depp – who has the Thompson screen persona down to an absolute tee now – plays Paul Kemp, a freelance journalist who takes a job no one else wants in Puerto Rico, writing for a newspaper that’s about to go out of business. Whilst there he meets Sala (Michael Rispoli) and gets mixed up in a deal with a local businessman/crook Sanderson (Aaron Eckhart) and falls for his beautiful girlfriend Chenault (Amber Heard).
The Rum Diary is neither as bad as it could have been nor as good as it probably should have been. With such talent involved, specifically Depp and Robinson (the latter of which hasn’t directed a film in almost 20 years), and the work of a truly unique author to work from, fans of all those involved surely can’t help but feel at least a pang of disappointment and a dose of longing for what could have been. After the fabulous Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas captured the tone of Thompson’s work perfectly, largely down to one-of-a-kind director Terry Gilliam, you can’t help but wish he was the one who made The Rum Diary instead.
Perhaps that’s being a tad unfair to the film and its veteran writer/director as Robinson has produced a perfectly serviceable, if unremarkable, adaptation with Depp on solid form (somewhat restained from his usual wackiness) and a great array of diverse characters that pop up and do their thing when needed – Giovanni Ribisi as a drug-taking weirdo who regularly listens to Hitler speeches on record is particularly funny. Sure the film cruises along well under the speed limit when it should be going all-out more frequently but there’s a feeling that this was a piece of cinema made with the best of intentions and a true love for the source material, even if it fails to entirely capture it on-screen.
The Rum Diary feels like a watered-down version of much more provocative and dangerous material, and it doesn’t hold together as well as it should with plot strands left open left, right and centre. But I still found it a serviceable watchable exploration of personal literary identity and an admirable ode to an incomparable author.