The Rum Diary Dir. Bruce Robinson

[Film District; 2011]

Styles: adaptation
Others: Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Where the Buffalo Roam

“Do you smell that?” asks Johnny Depp’s tribute to Hunter S. Thompson, lowly journalist Paul Kemp, at the very end of this film version of The Rum Diary. “It smells like bastards. And truth.”

Depp is standing in the bowels of a gutted Puerto Rican newspaper office, among the wreckage of printing presses that have been looted by the corrupt Americans (the bastards to whom he’s referring) who came to the island to rape it for all it’s worth. The truth to which he refers — meaning the will to stand up to such corruption — is in actuality a kind of simplified moralizing that the movie imagines to the be the heart of Thompson’s first book. To take Thompson’s surreally sardonic writing from the opening of his first novel — situated in the dingy, inviting bars of tropical San Juan, circa 1958 — to a line like that takes bluster, the kind you have to imagine Depp has in spades now that he is one of the biggest movie stars in the world.

The Rum Diary doesn’t even attempt to capture the spirit of the young, idealistic, pre-caricature Thompson, who wrote unironically about women, booze, and corruption in his first novel. Instead, the movie trades the 22-year-old Kemp of the book for the 48-year-old ubiquitous movie star Depp. It also trades the feel of low-rent journalism in the late-1950s Caribbean for reference after reference to the cult of Thompson: Kemp’s moral awakening is prompted not by his discovery of corruption, but by an LSD-fueled conversation with a lobster on a foggy pier at 2 AM — a moment latter-day Thompson might have approved of, but that feels (like the presence of Depp) as if future-Thompson has been artificially inserted into his supposedly younger self.

It’s not necessarily a problem for a movie to pluck freely from a novel as it blazes a new story. Many times, of course, it’s a huge benefit. But this movie is far more about the popular legend that we’ve come to think of as Hunter S. Thompson than it is about the real writer who was a struggling, drunken young man before he became a legend.

Youth and naiveté are key to the character of Kemp, but they’re also the reason this movie fucks up. It was produced by Depp, perhaps the person second most responsible for creating the Thompson cult, next to Thompson himself. As producer, it must have seemed necessary for Depp to see to it that The Rum Diary turned into an appropriate tribute to his longtime friend, who committed suicide back in 2005. It must have also seemed like a no-brainer for Depp to play Kemp himself, whether or not he’s far too old and completely wrong for the part. After all, Depp made the Thompson caricature immortal in Terry Gilliam’s magnificent Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, so who else could presume to play it again? But while the movie pretends to be about a moral awakening — especially in that self-important scene where Depp blusters on about bastards — a thin tribute to Thompson is all that it really is.

Maybe it’s not fair to harp on similarities between two movies made 15 years apart by different directors. But maybe it’s also unfair for movie stars to desecrate good books by trading on the credit their past movies have amassed. Allow that director Bruce Robinson nicely captures the lushness of Puerto Rican palm trees and the balminess of its nightclubs — as well as the barest hints of the fumes of Castro’s Cuba drifting across the sea — and you have a reasonably watchable film. But see The Rum Diary as a masturbatory celebration of an ever-profitable image of Hunter S. Thompson, and it becomes damn hard to like it.

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