Not long after Terry Gilliam somehow succeeded in bringing Hunter S. Thompson’s gonzo journalism bible Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas to the screen in 1998, the movie’s star, Johnny Depp, announced that one of his next projects would be an adaptation of Thompson’s autobiographical novel The Rum Diary, written in the early ’60s but first published more than 30 years later. The Rum Diary wasn’t regarded as unadaptable the way that Fear and Loathing had been through a quarter-century of development, but it still took 10 years to get it made.
Is it too late to let it sit another 15?
Depp’s subdued revisitation of his finest performance (this time under the guise of mistruthful young writer Paul Kemp) will be reason enough for Fear and Loathing devotees to see the new film, but they’ll be rewarded with only a few scenes that genuinely evoke Thompson’s spirit, which should have been the point of the whole thing. That most of those moments involve substance-addled asides speaks well of Depp’s hand-picked writer/director Bruce Robinson, whose 1987 film Withnail and I carved a genre out of chums, booze, and boredom.
Still, Robinson—who has made only two other films since Withnail—is to be pitied, and perhaps blamed. Though Fear and Loathing and The Rum Diary occupy the same general turf between fact and fiction, Robinson’s film is hobbled by the idea that its bits and pieces should add up to a story rather than just a sunny, druggy travelogue of Thompson’s time living, writing, and drinking in San Juan, Puerto Rico.
Not that embracing the episodic would improve much. In the case of a love—well, lust—triangle involving Kemp and fellow mainlander Chenault (Amber Heard, apparently fresh off the set of a spray-tan disaster film) the problem isn’t the audience’s lack of interest so much as Robinson’s; while it might have been less noticeable in Thompson’s book, there’s no excuse for an ostensibly serious film in 2011 to present its only female character as little more than a sex object and a complication, in that order. That immaturity extends to the film’s humor, which comes primarily in the form of gay panic gags—a scene where Kemp has to sit on his photographer’s lap to operate a front-seatless car is particularly sweaty—and ghastly double entendres. It’s little wonder they’re marketing the movie as if it were The Hangover 3.
If it were, one imagines we’d at least be spared the sermons. Thompson’s abiding outrage over the collusion of money, politics, and the press is as relevant now as it was when he sat down to write The Rum Diary 50 years ago, but the film screeches to a halt whenever Robinson sees the opportunity to plug in some preach. The most interminable of these potential bathroom breaks is an endless late-night exchange between Kemp and his editor (the otherwise scene-stealing Richard Jenkins) about why the San Juan Star isn’t in the business of publishing depressing or politically explosive content. (The two separate scenes in which a sinister developer, played by Aaron Eckhart, delivers a monologue about the Caribbean’s “ocean of money” come close.)
The points Thompson was trying to make are good ones, but once Robinson puts them into words they drift away on the ocean breeze. Brimming as it is with opinions (and plot points) about American exploitation of Puerto Rico, The Rum Diary has suspiciously little use for its people and culture; the city of San Juan is represented in a parade of anonymous interiors, while aerial beauty shots of the oceanside wilderness quietly reinforce the villains’ point of view of the island as a paradise waiting to be vacationed upon. Worse is the film’s indifference, to put it nicely, toward the natives, who are uniformly painted as dirty, poor, and quick to violence, whether they’re protesting labor conditions outside the newspaper offices or angrily chasing Kemp for perfectly good reasons we’re nonetheless meant to root against. The Rum Diary asks us rightly and repeatedly to share Thompson’s ire toward economic colonialism, then fails to offer even a single sympathetic nonwhite character.
Even if we’re willing to take all this as miscalculation rather than racism, we’re left with a movie that’s both earnest and disingenuous, neither of which is typically associated with Hunter S. Thompson. (Neither was he known for his plotting, which may explain why each and every plot thread fizzles in the end.) This is a film that involves Johnny Depp’s Hunter S. Thompson cockfighting, dropping LSD into his eyeball, and taking swigs of “400-proof alcohol” with the express purpose of defensive fire-breathing. How in the world did it turn out to be such a drag?