It’s been more than 13 years since Terry Gilliam gave us Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. You ready for another piece of completely unhinged gonzo filmmaking? You’re going to have to wait for the next Hunter S. Thompson adaptation, ’cause this weekend’s release, The Rum Diary, is pretty watered-down. But, in many ways, it should be.
Johnny Depp (delivering, appropriately, a much more restrained performance than his portrayal of Raoul Duke in Fear and Loathing) plays Paul Kemp, a journalist who trades the hustle and bustle of New York City and the “crushing conventions” of late ’50s America itself for the undiscovered country of Puerto Rico, where he takes a job at a San Juan newspaper run by a down-and-out sad sack (Richard Jenkins, always welcome company). He starts to get tanked, like, all the time (and can’t quite hold his rum as well as, say, Jack Sparrow) and befriends a ragtag group of American misfits, including a photographer (Michael Rispoli) and fellow journalist (Giovanni Ribisi), embarking on rum- (and other substances) soaked adventures.
Kemp ends up falling for the hotter-than-humanly-possible Chenault (Amber Heard), the girlfriend of an American developer named Sanderson (Aaron Eckhart), who wants to turn Puerto Rico into a haven for rich people. Sanderson hires Kemp to write favorable reviews for his various development projects, which tend to be shady at best. Though Kemp is paid handsomely for these articles, he’s soon faced with a decision: continue writing for the benefit of this snake or use his words to take down those who would champion a world without ethics. He doesn’t really do either, but there is a scene where Rispoli’s tongue turns into a snake after the trio takes some unidentified drug.
That kind of sums it up: the story has lofty ambitions and more than a few political and social agendas but it doesn’t quite have the fire or conviction to see them through — especially when there are so many mind-bending distractions around. But this is all kind of appropriate. The Rum Diary is one of the first works by Thompson, written ’round 1959 (when Thompson was 22) and unpublished until 1998. This is pre-gonzo Thompson. This is the work of a young man who hasn’t quite yet found his voice as perhaps the most influential counter-culture journalist of his generation, a young man who at the time had just made the fateful decision to be, above all, a writer. The Rum Diary, as a novel, feels like a young dude sullying forth into unchartered territory but emerging on the other side with a stronger sense of identity– and desire to “take the bastards down.” The film has that same sense of somewhat cautious enthusiasm, cutting loose every now and then but for the most part staying half-sober.
Somewhat appropriately, director Bruce Robinson approaches the material cautiously as well. Robinson is no stranger to gonzo material, having directed the fantastic fable about two drunk out-of-work actors, Withnail and I, and the brilliant corporate satire, How to Get Ahead in Advertising (which features Robinson himself as the voice of a talking boil on Richard E. Grant’s shoulder). But those two films came out in the ’80s — and, indeed, Robinson hasn’t directed another feature since the 1992 thriller, Jennifer Eight. The Rum Diary is actually the perfect project for a maverick director like Robinson with which to get back in the game — whereas Thompson’s novel is the work of a young man just starting out and planting the seeds of all that fear and loathing to come, the film is the work of an older man who’s taking baby steps back to his crazy roots. The two manage to meet in the middle.
The result of all this is, ultimately, a film that’s very much a spot-on reflection of the novel — likable and spirited but a bit rambling and unfocused. It never punches you in the gut or completely blows your mind the way Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas did. That film had nothing to lose, but The Rum Diary does — after all, it’s just the beginning.