It took a bit for Johnny Depp to wrap up and screen this personal tribute to his great friend – Hunter S. Thompson, but it proved to be worth his while. Despite market odds and endless postponement of the premiere, the effect of his actor's and producer's work uncovers a very funny and romantic take on Thompson's novel, widely recognised by fans and critics as his worst book. Speaking of book and movie correlation, I need to stress that coin's flipside is still in Depp's favour as he scored the points by proving a screen adaptation can be far better than a book on which it's based, if you tweak and shape it up a little bit. Certainly, there can be no good film without a good story. Neither the book or the film are genuinely good stories in this case, but if I was to choose one, my money would land on the film! I advise you to check it out even if you didn't like the book, cause it reveals a lively vibe of it's own.
"The Rum Diary" was started by Hunter S. Thompson around 1959 in Puerto Rico to be edited and finished around 1962 in New York, where he went into writing another novel shortly, "Prince Jellyfish", which has never got published as a whole, however it's excerpts have made it to "Songs Of The Doomed" (1991). "The Rum Diary" has been returned to Thompson by every publisher it was sent to at that time – virtually nobody was interested in giving it a go. Eventually, it stayed in the drawer till 1998, when Hunter pulled it out convinced by his agent Douglas Brinkley to do so. He didn't really support the idea initially, but cocaine and booze checks were running high so did the lawyers' fees, hence he couldn't refuse this little extra cash. It got smartly packaged by the publisher as a missing link to gonzo journalism, but this really doesn't matter as Thompson's fans would buy just anything to go through some stuff unpublished before. That's how Hunter basically made it through late 80's and 90's with Gonzo Papers series.
I was one of these victims and didn't really swear after making through it, instead I just put it back on a shelf pondering this peculiar mixture of alcohol extravaganza and sloppy writing. Downbeat style of the book shows clearly a growing depression of a rookie journalist, who found himself on the crossroads with little ideas where to go and how to handle his career. It's as bad as it gets. Hemingway's and Fitzgerald's styles are retraced, crossed and rewritten, but the efect resembles bleak xerocopies of Robert Frank's photos. Thompson's characters are poorly drawn while narration is giddy and dull as a pavement. There's nothing here really to admire, but if it's the only Thompson's book you've read, I guess you need to fill the gap quickly.
"The Rum Diary" is basically an insider's prose. We're being served with daily exploits of bunch of losers, dropouts and winos trying recklessly to lick the last drop from a glass before the curtain drops and everything tumbles down into a black hole. There are no drugs, no acidheads and getting laid is very hard – these themes belong to another land called gonzo, that was years to come at that point. The book is actually so void and boring, that it becomes frustrating in the end! As far as Thompson's oeuvre is concerned, I'd put it in line with "Hey Rube!", another writing disaster but from a different planet. It's definitely something of Hunter's first leap into the world of literature, a writing exercise, like "Junky" was respectively for William S. Burroughs – in fact there are many similiarities. It lacks undoubtedly Hunter's later psychedelic madness, his insightful comment and fascinating, twisted sprint through galaxies of social and political reality. What we get in "The Rum Diary" comes in fact nowhere near "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas"... it's just a bummer.
Bruce Robinson's film is loosely based on the novel and I'm deeply convinced it's a good thing in this case. Ross Kemp character (Hunter's literary alter ego played by Johnny Depp) is not as gritty as pictured in the book and the backdrop follows the same logic leaving out the scruffy details. Apart of that, a screenplay brings drugs to the screen – Ross and his buddy Bob get loaded on acid – which kind of reitarates Terry Gilliam's "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas" scenes and forks out Thompson's countercultural message. The money problems – crucial for the book – are smoothly resolved by Kemp's interaction with Mr. Sanderson and most of the original characters don't get to be developed in a script at all. This lightens up film's narration allowing director to follow the romance plot and show off Kemp's rebellious spirit a bit more. While almost two hours long movie may leave you wasted sometimes, action tools in "The Rum Diary" save the day letting us enjoy the ride smoothly. No real bumps to my eye at least. Acting is fair, getting very good in few particular scenes – cast knows well the shapes and the lines passing either on tragic or on comedy side depending on the context.
While this movie is not gonna crack your head open, it's not gonna bust your balls either. However, this middle shelf quality grows out essentially from Thompson's mediocre story. It's been fixed, but you cannot make fireworks out of a lighter and a wood chip – a small fire is the only possibility. If the story doesn't sparkle, even good acting is not gonna help much as it cannot boil all the elements together by itself. The most important thing is, that Johnny Depp produced a movie he liked and that Hunter would probably enjoy to see as well. By delivering "The Rum Diary" he made an official tribute to one of the greatest writers of the last century, his friend and tutor. By following a possible-to-do line and not trying to shoot the moon by going into production of let's say "Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail '72", he accomplished a fine example of cinematic judgement. This seems great thing to do after all and that's one of the reasons why "The Rum Diary" defends itself firmly. Well done, colonel!