Long before Raoul Duke descended on Vegas, before conquering the Kentucky Derby, prior to riding with the Hell’s Angels and going toe-to-nose with Nixon, Hunter S. Thompson was just another young writer struggling to stay afloat while finding his voice. So he fell into the trap that fells many young writers without a voice (including a goodly number of Thompson fans): he emulated his idols.
Reading The Rum Diary—a largely autobiographical piece of semi-fiction originally written in the early ‘60s that was shelved until 1998—one would be forgiven for not realizing it was Thompson’s work. The story of a cub reporter cutting his teeth in an underdeveloped Puerto Rico, Diary is essentially the young Thompson’s attempt to channel Hemmingway by way of Fitzgerald, with Thompson’s lead character playing the role of a tragic, pre-wealth Gatsby who finds his own personal Daisy in the arms of his best friend’s lover, and who is shocked to discover the greed both emotional and economic that surfaces when his temptations are stirred.
It is essentially Thompson’s only novel (though some may argue that its mix of fact and fiction is in line with later “nonfiction” works like Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas), and it was his passion project, a reflection of the writer he truly wanted to be—a helpless romantic whose sense of reality and commitment to real-world issues helped to frame and inform his character arcs.
Long before the book was actually published, Thompson was absolutely obsessed with seeing The Rum Diary hit the big screen. He hounded his agent incessantly and sent out script treatments for years. He spoke endlessly about ideas of how to make it work. When the Great Gonzo punched his own ticket in 2005, his dear friend Johnny Depp made it his mission to finally bring the vision to the screen and, after several false starts, The Rum Diary finally boasts Depp in the lead and reclusive cult director Bruce Robinson (Withnail & I) behind the camera.
The result is an initially captivating tale. Shot amid the beautiful sands of San Juan, The Rum Diary tells the tale of Thompson avatar Paul Kemp, a 22-year-old reporter (Depp is 48, though you wouldn’t know it) who arrives at the city’s dying newspaper for his first professional gig, only to discover that his editor (the great Richard Jenkins) would rather see stories about American tourists having fun than the rape of the land at the hands of developers such as Sanderson (Aaron Eckhart, in the film’s weakest role).
He soon befriends photographer Sala (Michael Rispoli) and burnt-out reporter Moburg (show-stopper Giovanni Ribisi, in a truly inspired bit of lunacy), engaging in an endless cycle of drunken misadventures as Kemp is seduced by Sanderson’s promise of wealth and power, lusts after his bombshell girlfriend (Amber Heard) and develops a disgust for land-rape that HST fans will find refreshingly familiar.
The film moves along briskly for the first hour, with subtle nods to the man Thompson will become tossed in for good measure (Tricky Dick makes an appearance) and some important plot points tossed out the window (one central character is cut completely) to streamline the affair. It actually works beautifully for a while, prodded along by excellent performances all around, particularly an uncharacteristically subdued Depp’s portrait of the pre-frenzied Thompson. But then, suddenly and without warning, The Rum Diary forgets that the book isn’t a comedy. Or particularly good.
In very much the same way the young Thompson channeled Hemmingway and Fitzgerald in creating The Rum Diary, so too does Robinson—also the screenwriter—attempt to capture Thompson’s sudden change from novelist to lunatic journalist by channeling the good doctor’s writing. The result plays out like fan fiction.
Out goes the book’s true theme—the corruption of optimism and the denigration of friendship and loyalty at the hands of greed—and in comes a preview of the larger-than-life persona that Thompson would later come to embody. Hell, there’s even an acid trip wedged in there, complete with the requisite moment of clarity that sends Kemp running to the typewriter and turns him from hack to prophet for New Journalism at the turn of a dime. This and moments like it, absent from the book, are complemented with voiceover passages that sound suspiciously like Thompson but, in fact, are just knock-offs.
In the end, the bleakness of the book—so instrumental to its limited impact and so indicative of the writer lurking beneath its derivative nature—is supplanted with what is essentially an origin story not unlike Batman Begins, only with Thompson battling greedy land developers and using words as his weapons. “Find your own trade wind,” a friend says before Kemp literally sails into the sunset and the picture dissolves into a photo of the young Thompson drinking on the beach.That’s the sad part about losing a literary treasure like Thompson. The shroud of sentimentality adds far too much sugar to a life that was marked—celebrated—for its piss and vinegar. The Rum Diary begins as the portrait of the Gonzo as a young man. It ends as a sappy Disney movie far too drunk on its sense of purpose to realize it’s taken an extraordinary life and rendered it utterly dull and normal by comparison. Cazart. Let’s move on to the inevitable biopic. R.