I approached my viewing of The Rum Diary (2011) with equal parts anticipation and trepidation. With the exception of Where the Buffalo Roam (1980) and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998), writer Hunter S. Thompson has not seen many of his books adapted into films and with good reason. His often crazed and surreal first person narratives are largely internalized with his trademark colorful descriptions of people and places not easy to replicate visually. Just watch Where the Buffalo Roam to see what I mean. Terry Gilliam, however, was able to pull it off with the cult classic Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, which featured Johnny Depp uncannily channeling Thompson. The actor also became quite close to the legendary writer, even becoming an unofficial guardian of his legacy after Thompson died in 2005. This included seeing his novel The Rum Diary made into a film. However, the journey to get it made took 11 years with several actors signed on only to eventually drop out; mirroring the rocky journey Thompson himself took to get his book published.
Based on his experiences writing for a doomed sports newspaper in San Juan, Puerto Rico in 1960, Thompson wrote the book in the early 1960s and tried to get several publishers interested until numerous rejection letters later left him so discouraged that he gave up and wrote about politics during the ‘60s and 1970s. Then, in the 1990s, he was motivated by nostalgia… and money to dust it off, finish and get it published in 1998. A film version was put into development as early as 2000 with Depp and Nick Nolte set to star. However, this didn’t pan out and another attempt was made in 2002 with Benicio del Toro and Josh Hartnett replacing Nolte. This incarnation also fizzled out during the development phase. Finally, in 2007, a new attempt gained some serious traction with Depp handpicking Bruce Robinson, the writer/director of the cult classic Withnail and I (1987), and coaxing him out of semi-self-imposed retirement to adapt the book. The final result was a commercial failure and a film that disappointed the Thompson faithful for being a sanitized take on the novel or for not being more like Gilliam’s film.
The latter complaint is a rather unfair one because The Rum Diary is a completely different book than Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas in every way – setting, tone and, most importantly, style. Thompson wrote it before he had developed his trademark Gonzo journalism and was still finding his voice if you will. The tone of Fear and Loathing is more jaded, cynical and paranoid – hence the title, while The Rum Diary is more idealistic and romantic, written by a man who still had his whole life ahead of him.
Admittedly, the film starts off shakily as the opening credits play over postcard perfect shots of Puerto Rico while Dean Martin croons “Volare” on the soundtrack. What the hell? Is this going to be some half-assed tribute to the Rat Pack? Fortunately, we meet a bloodshot and disheveled Paul Kemp (Johnny Depp) waking up in his hotel room after a night of heavy drinking. It is 1960 and he has just arrived from New York City to start work at the San Juan Star, a local newspaper on the verge of going under, if the angry mob gathered outside its front door is any indication. Kemp wisely goes in through the back way and soon meets Bob Sala (Michael Rispoli), staff photographer, and who proceeds to give him the lay of the land. Kemp has a meeting with Lotterman (Richard Jenkins), the editor-in-chief who admits to him that he doesn’t like reading his own paper! Lotterman is looking for some fresh blood, hence hiring Kemp, but warns him that he doesn’t want any heavy drinkers and puts him immediately to work writing horoscopes.
Sala takes Kemp on a brief tour of the building and, more importantly, the local bar where many of staff reporters hang out. When asked how long he’s been in Puerto Rico, Sala replies, “Too long,” and compares the place to “someone you fucked and they’re still under you.” Over drinks he points out one of the paper’s more notorious contributors – Moberg (Giovanni Ribisi), the crime and religious affairs correspondent and whose “entire sub-structure of his brain has been eaten away from rum,” according to Sala.
While on an assignment for the paper, Kemp meets Hal Sanderson (Aaron Eckhart), a former employee of the paper, now a slick public relations consultant who wears impeccably tailored, expensive suits and drives around in a flashy sports car. It’s all in an attempt to seduce Kemp and convince him to write copy promoting San Juan to Americans in the hopes they’ll buy land there. Kemp is only half-paying attention to his pitch as he is unable to take his eyes off of Sanderson’s gorgeous girlfriend Chenault (Amber Heard), whom he met briefly earlier one night while paddle boating in the ocean and she appeared to him like a mermaid in the water. Kemp is captivated by her beauty but must keep his distance because of his business relationship with Sanderson. At first, Kemp’s freelance gig with Sanderson is good but the writer can’t reconcile the exploitation of the land at the hands of greedy developers with the poverty conditions he sees much of its population living in.
Giovanni Ribisi pops up occasionally as scene-stealer Moberg, a dirty and debauched excuse for a human being reminiscent of the wild, rampaging Dr. Gonzo in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. The actor immerses himself completely in the role, adopting a reedy, weasely voice and unhinged demeanor that is introduced in a memorable scene where Moberg confronts Lotterman over money owed, threatening to “come through the roof and turn this place into an insurance claim,” only to then rip off the editor’s badly applied hair piece. Moberg is so vividly portrayed by Ribisi that he belongs in the less is more category because threatens to throw off the balance of the film. Fortunately, Robinson gets just the right mix with this character.
While Ribisi gleefully chews up the scenery, Michael Rispoli delivers a wonderfully understated performance as Sala. The actor first came onto my radar with his way too brief role on The Sopranos but when he’s given a chance to take center stage, like the little seen independent film Two Family House (2000), he demonstrates some solid skills. So, it’s great to see The Rum Diary give Rispoli substantial screen-time and he makes the most of it as the grizzled, seen-it-all photographer biding his time until he can get enough money to take off to Mexico. The actor delivers the most naturalistic performance of anybody in the film as he seamlessly inhabits his character. Perhaps a more interesting film would’ve been one that focused on Sala and this is due in large part to Rispoli’s excellent work.
Johnny Depp does a fine job reprising a younger, more romantic incarnation of Hunter S. Thompson. He wisely dials down the author’s trademark mannerisms, only hinting at the persona that would make him famous later in life. The Thompson of The Rum Diary era has yet to be disillusioned by life – that happens over the course of the film. Depp understands that this film is an origins story of sorts and that by its conclusion, Kemp has started the process of transforming into the man who will one day write Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. It is nice to see Depp not playing a pirate or starring in some forgettable Tim Burton film and portraying a recognizable human being.
Much like with Fear and Loathing, The Rum Diary openly criticizes the exploitation and corruption of the American Dream. Lotterman lays it all out for Kemp over drinks late one night. The paper’s readers don’t want to read about what’s really going on in Puerto Rico. They want the romantic dream of blue skies and sandy beaches. It’s Kemp’s job to sell that idealized image to the masses. “You’re paying to be in the dream,” he tells Kemp at one point. It is with this scene that the film gets down to brass tacks and really pulls back the romantic façade to explain how things really work. Once Kemp is privy to that, he can’t go back to being a hired gun, some hack writing puff pieces. He sets out on a path to be someone who is unafraid to report the truth no matter how ugly.
It’s been awhile since I’ve read the book but the film manages to capture its spirit rather well. With the minor quibble of Depp being too old for the role, the cast looks very close to the way I imagined the characters in my head when I read the novel. Thankfully, the filmmakers didn’t go the safe route and cast popular actors but rather got the right people for the roles, which probably hurt its chances with mainstream audiences – that, and the whole exploitation of Puerto Rico thing, which I imagine turned off people expecting some low brow comedy a la The Hangover (2009). No, The Rum Diary has much more on its mind and for that it should be applauded.
Can I say how great it is to see Bruce Robinson directing a film again? It has been too long since the underrated atmospheric crime thriller Jennifer 8 (1992), a debacle production-wise that prompted him to swear off directing and burned what few bridges he had in Hollywood. While it is not as brilliant as Withnail and I, The Rum Diary is a solid piece of work. Robinson manages to translate the core elements of the novel and is unafraid to risk alienating viewers with the subplot of Kemp’s dealings with Sanderson. He could have made a safe, entertaining romp but opted instead to depict the story of a man who develops scruples and becomes someone who is proactive instead of a follower who touts the party line. Robinson wraps this all up in an attractive package with some absolutely stunning cinematography courtesy of Dariusz Wolski (Prometheus) and that showcases the beauty of Puerto Rico’s considerable natural resources. In retrospect, Robinson was an inspired choice to write and direct this film. As he proved with Withnail and I, he knows how to effortlessly mix comedy and drama. He also has a fantastic ear for memorable dialogue – for witty banter and truth-telling monologues. It is these elements that also exist in The Rum Diary. However, the film marred somewhat by a clumsily inserted drug hallucination scene with some badly rendered CGI that awkwardly attempts to bridge The Rum Diary with Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. The film would’ve been better if this scene had been omitted entirely as it is completely unnecessary.
In 1960, a 22-year-old Hunter S. Thompson moved from New York City to Puerto Rico with the intention of working as a journalist and writing a Hemingway-esque novel about the experience in his spare time. However, Thompson didn’t adapt well to the lifestyle there and left after a few months for further misadventures in South America. By 1962, he had finished a 1,000 page manuscript entitled The Rum Diary and returned to the United States in 1963 to shop it around to various publishers with no success. He made several revisions including making it more controversial in the hopes it would be sellable. For example, inspired by the emerging civil rights debates that were raging at the time, he added an “interracial sex scene.” Deep down, Thompson may have realized that it wasn’t a very good book and put it aside for several decades. In 1998, Depp found the manuscript while staying with Thompson and doing research for the film version of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. He thought The Rum Diary had cinematic possibilities and would provide the writer with some much-needed income. Some 600 pages were cut out and the book was published to mixed reviews.
Bruce Robinson first met Johnny Depp when the actor approached him about directing Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. The actor was a huge fan of both Withnail and I and How to Get Ahead in Advertising: “These two films destroyed me. I knew I had to work with him one way or another, by hook or by crook. So I hooked him.” However, the director was so fed up with the business that he declined the offer. Then, a few years later, the actor contacted him again about writing a screenplay adaptation of The Rum Diary only Robinson wasn’t a fan of the book. “The story is great … It has a lot of faults in the narrative and drive and some of it is very vulgar, which I didn’t like.” However, he agreed to do it. After Depp read it, he asked Robinson to direct and he declined again. The actor was persistent and Robinson was flattered that a movie star of Depp’s caliber wanted him and he finally accepted the job.
In preparation for adapting the book, Robinson read it twice and made extensive notes. He felt that the adaptation had to be written in his voice, but “I’m writing in what I hope would be the same vernacular as him.” Robinson, a prolific alcoholic for years, had stopped drinking heavily in 2003. At the height of his problem, he drank four or five bottle of wine a day. He began writing The Rum Diary script and for a few weeks, “I let the sober side win.” He struggled and realized that to get into the mindset of a character like Moberg he needed to start drinking again. “I wrote the script pretty quickly after that, but I stuck to wine as a medicine. I drank a bottle a day.” Once he finished writing the script, he stopped drinking. To prepare for the film, Robinson found a 1960s tourist guidebook of Puerto Rico and also poured over years of feature articles in back issues of National Geographic in order to give him a sense of place.
The Rum Diary received mostly negative reviews from mainstream critics. Roger Ebert gave the film two-and-a-half out of four stars and wrote, “We have the feeling that Kemp/Thompson saw much of life through the bottom of a dirty glass and did not experience it with any precision. The film duplicates this sensation, not with much success.” In his review for The New York Times, A.O. Scott wrote, “Mr. Depp, drawing in his mouth and lowering the register of his voice, is reliably unpredictable and predictably cool, but as is so often the case lately, he seems to be acting from behind the mask of his own charisma.” Entertainment Weekly gave it a “C” rating and Owen Gleiberman wrote, “We're supposed to be witnessing the birth of a great journalist, but Hunter S. Thompson, as his career went on, got swallowed up by his mystique as an outlaw of excess. In The Rum Diary, that myth becomes an excuse for a movie to go slumming.” The Village Voice’s J. Hoberman wrote, “Robinson is good on sweaty, sodden mise-en-scène and elaborately grubby tropical torpor, but he never quite gets the giddy velocity of a what-the-fuck bender. Truth to tell, The Rum Diary is actually more of a light morning-after hangover—it won’t leave you with a headache.” Time magazine’s Richard Corliss felt that the film was “defiantly tiny, an agreeable time-waster for the onlookers and its star. The Rum Diary isn’t a corrective to Johnny Depp’s kid-centric career, more like a vacation from it, in a resort where the visitors are strange, the natives are restless and the flow of alcohol endless.”
I can only imagine how disappointed Depp must’ve been about the film’s commercial failure. Clearly, he saw this film as a cinematic love letter to his departed friend. It was a passion project that he stuck with for 11 years, never giving up on it despite numerous setbacks. He should be proud of the fact that he got another Hunter S. Thompson book made into a film and right or wrong he did it his way, independently and not through some Hollywood studio that would’ve watered it down to nothing, much like how Kemp in the film bucks the system. However, the fate of the film once it was released also mirrors what happens to Kemp and Sala when they try to resurrect the newspaper for one last issue in an unfortunate example of life imitating art. Hopefully, The Rum Diary will be rediscovered over the years and appreciated more than it was upon its initial release.
NOTE: My friend over at The Film Connoisseur blog wrote an excellent review of this film. Check it out.