Nobody would publish the book this film was based on when it was first written. And now, nobody would make this film except for who wrote it.
Reading The Rum Diary, which Hunter S. Thompson pushed into print 38 years after he wrote it, it’s easy to see why it was initially rejected. The various, largely indistinct characters slip in and out of now-familiar Gonzo slogans (“the fat is in the fire,” “I’m getting the fear”). Chenault, the only female character, spends the entire book either wandering around naked or being abused by her boyfriend. And the central concept, of a few slack writers milking a dying paper for booze money in 1950s Puerto Rico, is never enough to hold this sleazy mess together.
But in late 2011, nearly seven years after his death by suicide, Thompson is a counterculture celebrity. His disciple, Johnny Depp, has made a serious fortune from the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, leaving him in a unique position to rescue this tale from itself.
No such luck. Rather than a repeat of the fantastic film adaptation of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, we’re left with a convoluted mélange more in-line with the aimless Where the Buffalo Roam. Hell, it may even be worse.
So what happened? Depp and Aaron Eckhart are fantastic actors. But Depp’s Paul Kemp—the nakedly Thompson stand-in of a protagonist—spends much of the movie staring woodenly at his costars. Occasionally he comes to life, wandering into a slum to snap pictures (the results of which we never see) or crusading vaguely about capital-j Journalism, but these bits lead nowhere and hang unresolved. And Eckhart is handed a by-the-numbers diabolical land-developer role, within which his talents are wasted. His Hal Sanderson subsumes one of the only characters in the book with a pulse, the misogynistic island-slacker Yeamon (kinda like Jimmy Buffett meets Ned Land), and comes out painfully one-dimensional. And Amber Heard, as Chenault, fares little better than her literary counterpart.
Writer-director Bruce Robinson, who wrote the heartbreaking The Killing Fields and, more pertinently to his latest project, wrote and directed that classic of alcoholic bohemia, Withnail and I, fell off the wagon during production, he told the UK Independent. With all due sympathy, learning that the script was written in a drunken haze explains a lot.
There are occasional bright spots. Bob Sala (The Sopranos’ Michael Rispoli) is a largely believable kindhearted slob of a staff photographer who, though written as Kemp’s foil, consistently eclipses poor Depp. And Sala’s car—a Carolina blue Fiat that has also seen better days—is practically a character itself until it’s pointlessly destroyed in one of many continuity-wrecking bits of slapstick.
Late in the film, when Kemp gripes that he can’t find his voice as a writer, we’re right there with him—especially if he’s read as a Thompson stand-in. This book was written when the late author was 22, granted, but it’s still chock-full of unsavory elements Thompson adherents tend to overlook (such as his almost-masturbatory use of the N-word). The film makes a few concessions to the Thompson legend, forcing in several Fear and Loathing drug ’n’ booze rampage scenes, yet never fully rescues The Rum Diary from its poor structure, intermittent fourth-wall collapse, and hideous racist overtones. Though the film implies what was explicitly shown in the book, The Rum Diary climaxes with a black mob-on-white girl rape scene. And that’s just fucked up.