There are two main reasons why Hunter S. Thompson made history. First, he had an extremely sharp vision about greed overcoming America and second, he's a very funny guy. His depiction of excess on his characters were particularly hilarious in the adaptation of his magnus opus FEAR & LOATHING IN LAS VEGAS in 1998. The movie was a huge box office bust, but introduced Thompson to another generation of readers, including yours truly. There are fundamental differences between the work of Thompson and the way Hollywood wants to represent him. He wasn't that soulless addict with a magic pen. He was a man with strong values who genuinely feared for the country he loved. He just had a very colorful way of saying it. Bruce Robinson's adaptation of THE RUM DIARY doesn't quite get that. In fact, I wasn't sure it was the best work of his to adapt to movies and despite being very well casted and that the actors all give it their genuine best, it shows.
It's the highly autobiographical story of journalist Paul Kemp (Depp) who got hired at the San Juan Star in Puerto Rico. He finds that the paradise he was looking for is prey to American money * and greed of promoters who want to build touristic resorts. One of those promoters, a man named Sanderson (Eckhart), even takes interest in him. As he's an Island virgin and he's very apt with words, he sees Kemp as a potential ally to get the population on their side through articles in the San juan Star. What he doesn't know, is that Kemp has this wild and carefree nature and doesn't exactly buy his ideas. Also, Sanderson happens to have a very attractive girlfriend, Chenault (Heard) who finds Kemp very charming too. This is no place to be for an idealist and an artist. Immense pressure is placed on Paul as he has to decide if he will break his personal ethics or no.
One thing you have to know about THE RUM DIARY, is that it was Thompson's second attempt at writing fiction and pretty much its last, since it got rejected many, many times and not published until 1998. While it makes complete sense to have it published now as Thompson is an established figure and that THE RUM DIARY is an interesting early manifestations of his battlehorse themes, you have to put this in perspective. As the unknown writer he was back then, this doesn't cut it and back then it was also kind of offensive. Eerily enough, the adaptation carries this spirit of not-doing-enough-to-be-interesting. This happens because of a directorial choice to rely on the actor's game more than it should have. Depp and Eckhart are great. ** Amber Heard is promising. But the voice of Hunter S. Thompson is absent from this adaptation, while it's ironically the main selling point of the film. This would've benefited from some "voice-over moments" where you could feel the Thompson touch, because believe it or not, it's not as evident as it FEAR & LOATHING IN LAS VEGAS! It's a lot less chaotic of a story.
I really wanted to love this adaptation, because I'm a huge Hunter S. Thompson fan and I like the novel. But it's lazy, shoddy work that bets everything on the gags within the story. Too bad, because Thompson's writing wasn't comedic at heart and comedy itself is an art that requires strong timing. That movie doesn't have any. It's not a painful viewing experience per se, but it's mediocre if you don't know Thompson's work and thoroughly disappointing if you do. There is a great cast who are left to fend off for themselves in a movie that has very little artistic direction. In fact, you might find this movie better if you didn't read the novel or don't know Thompson, because it's as lifeless as it gets for an adaptation. Bland. Meaningless. The best thing that could happen to Thompson's estate is that someone would take THE RUM DIARY and redoes a proper adaptation.
* Typical Thompsonesque situation
** As usual
I'm a pop culture blogger and author living in Montreal, Canada with my better half Josie and my dog Scarlett. I am a proud member of author collective Zelmer Pulp and have about a dozen of short stories published to my resume.