The Rum Diary (2011) – The Strange Torpedo Ride Begins…

Reading Hunter S Thompson is dangerous for an aspiring writer.  His style is easy to mimic, and I’ve read many online writers who are unmistakably influenced by him.  The trouble is, once you start writing like someone else, it’s hard to get back writing like yourself.

I spent a good few years trying to write like Thompson, and I tried living a Gonzo lifestyle – go somewhere, drink shitloads of booze and take some drugs, get in a shitload of crazy adventures, then write about it.

I even had my own Dr Gonzo character.  While taking a teaching course in Prague, I shared an apartment with an alcoholic ex-US Marine.  The man wasn’t violent, but had a natural gift for creating bug-eyed mayhem.  As the straight man of the duo, I spent most of my time navigating the outlandish scenarios he created.

Of my whole “Gonzo” period, I managed to produce one short story, which I banged out in one afternoon.  The rest was just drinking.  That’s the other danger of trying to copy Hunter S. Thompson.  It takes a special constitution to live that lifestyle and actually produce something worth reading.  Otherwise you’re just on the piss and scribbling stuff even you can’t read the next day.

One line in The Rum Diary that feels key is: “I just haven’t learned to write like me yet.”, which is why I decided to open with this cautionary tale.  The most watchable of three Hunter S. Thompson films, it introduces a young journalist, Paul Kemp (Johnny Depp), who blags his way onto the writing staff of a failing newspaper in Puerto Rico.

The editor, Edward J Lotterman (Richard Jenkins) is not convinced, either by Kemp’s resume or his drinking, which Kemp classifies as “the upper end of social”.  The new recruit is dumped on horoscope duty.

Kemp instantly becomes friends with the paper’s photographer, Sala (Michael Rispoli), a slovenly boozer who helps him settle into island life.  He also meets slick rich realtor Hal Sanderson (Aaron Eckhart), who offers to throw a little writing work in Kemp’s direction.

Kemp also gets to meet Chenault (Amber Heard), Sanderson’s fiance, who pops up unexpectedly next to his pedalo one starry night.  Kemp is instantly smitten.

The film follows Kemp and Sala’s drunken adventures as Kemp discovers Sanderson’s plan for a massive development of an untouched island, currently leased by the US military.  Kemp also begins to see the poverty behind the scenes of the affluent playground for wealthy white Americans, and pitches a story to Lotterman.  Lotterman is not interested – in his view, the wealthy white American readership of the San Juan Star don’t want to read such things.

Like Where the Buffalo Roam and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, The Rum Diary doesn’t have much of a plot.  It tries to develop one toward the end, when Kemp tries rallying the dissolute newsmen of the folding newspaper to print one last issue, in a sozzled variation of The Show Must Go On spirit.

The film is more a series of vignettes, although The Rum Diary is certainly more accessible than its predecessors.  Where the Buffalo Roam, despite Bill Murray’s cult presence, was way too rambling and niche, and Terry Gilliam’s Fear and Loathing…, despite some outrageous visuals and set pieces, was virtually unwatchable.

Depp once more nails  his late friend’s verbal and physical idiosyncrasies, perfectly, although there is something disconcertingly hollow behind Depp’s eyes these days.  He might inhabit the role, but sometimes I wonder who’s inhabiting him – Depp doesn’t seem to have his heart in it anymore.

Bruce Robinson’s screenplay certainly plays to audiences conversant with Thompson’s work and legend, and viewers unfamiliar with the writer might wonder what all the fuss is about.

Thankfully, Robinson the director also gives the casual viewer plenty to feast their eyes on, and Dariusz Wolski’s crisp cool cinematography shows Puerto Rico as a stunning place.  Between them, they strike the right chord, and the film looks glossy without being vacant, and capture the sultry atmosphere of the island’s dive bars and dance clubs.

Depp and Heard look great together without creating any real chemistry, although The Rum Diary is much sexier than 2010’s deathly The Tourist.

The Rum Diary doesn’t amount to much.  Kemp, a thinly disguised pseudonym for a young Thompson, doesn’t get his scoop and sails off into the sunset, making the film more of a prequel to Fear and Loathing than in was perhaps intended when the author finally got round to publishing it.

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About leerobertadams

Lee is an English writer, blogger and film critic living in Brno, Czech Republic. When not watching and writing about movies, he loves football, reading, eating out, and enjoying his adopted home city with his girlfriend and baby daughter.

Posted on 18/07/2012, in Comedy, Drama, Drinking, Entertainment, Film, Movies, R, Reviews and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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