Silver Screen: The Rum Diary ***

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Silver Screen: The Rum Diary ***
Bryan Miller

The Rum Diary, the mostly enjoyable Hunter S. Thompson superfan tribute project, is full of contortions and conflations. It's a vanity project for someone else, a paean, a tall tale, a breezy good time, and also a muddle of revisionist history and crackpot literary theory. It's complicated.

Follow along: Before he became America's foremost counterculture journalist, Thompson was a slightly more conventional member of the press whose big ambition was to write American novels in the tradition of Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Alger. He wrote the novel The Rum Diary at a young age, based in part on his experiences living and working in San Juan, but did not publish it. The novel hit shelves decades later, when Terry Gilliam's adaptation of Thompson’s madcap cult classic Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas launched a revival of the great gonzo journalist.

The Rum Diary, which is a little aimless but full of phenomenal sentences and insights, centers on Paul Kemp, a not-so-vague stand-in for Thompson who goes to San Juan to work for a crumbling newspaper run by an anxiety-riddled wreck and staffed almost entirely by drunks and degenerates. Kemp gets in scrapes with the locals and is bailed out by a shifty American businessman who is conspiring with both the military and an armada of capitalist invaders to turn the verdant paradise into yet another money machine for Yankee tourists.

The film version ostensibly has the same goals, at least until the final act. Writer/director Bruce Robinson hews fairly close to the source material early on, landing a drunken Kemp (Johnny Depp) in San Juan amid hydra-headed turmoil. The paper's editor (Richard Jenkins) is on the verge of collapse, the crime writer (Giovanni Ribisi) is a total degenerate, and Kemp's only friend, Sala (Michael Rispoli), is already plotting his escape. Robinson's first revision is a smart one, to combine two characters so that the dubious American businessman Sanderson (Aaron Eckhart) is also Kemp's romantic rival for sexpot Cheneault (Amber Heard). It streamlines the plot and puts Kemp well on his way toward the disillusionment that marks the end of the story.

But it's at the end, after some episodic craziness and dire insights into the state of capitalism and democracy, that the film version of The Rum Diary reveals its true purpose. Where the novel ends at Carnivale, the film sets about its true purpose. In Robinson's version, Ribisi's addled deadbeat shows up with a powerful and unnamed (and totally fake) hallucinogen, which Kemp and Sala take. They wander the streets in mid-trip, and Kemp has a series of epiphanies that lead him to innovate his writing style and to focus his ire, to get serious about journalism. “I'm putting the bastards on notice!” Depp declares.

If you're not already a Hunter Thompson fan, it's at this point you will become confused. Suddenly the movie seems to be moving somewhere unspoken, to be about something that is never shown, and the sudden jolt of breathless momentum is completely unfulfilled. That's because the last act of The Rum Diary is nothing more than a setup to Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, an establishing scene of all the pieces necessary for the movie/story Thompson fans really love.

And there's where the trick is played on us: Robinson's Rum Diary isn't an adaptation of an enjoyable but low-key, realist novel, it's positioned as a prequel to the Thompson legacy, the origin story of the good gonzo doctor. It's Hunter Begins, with Fear and Loathing framed as the real masterpiece, The Drunk Knight.

That's exactly where those contortions and conflations come into play, and Robinson shows his fatalistic streak. Kemp, of course, isn't Thompson-- he's a character based on a younger Thompson. Nor is the older, platonic Thompson figure the film has in mind really Thompson, but rather the self-mythologized figure of the Hunter T.'s own creation.

But in Robinson's mind, Thompson is always inevitably going to become his own Ralph Steadman-sketched caricature. It's not a natural process, it's a kind of preordained inheritance. That's the kind of shoddy logic the man himself would abhor. Robinson's amateur literary hypotheses reach their nadir when Kemp gets druggy and the full Hunter Thompson voice comes rushing out, as though it were the drugs, not years of hard work and study, that allowed him to achieve greatness. It's the primary fallacy of the Thompson legacy. In fact, Hunter S. Thompson was a great writer who did a lot of drugs, not a writer who was made great by drugs.

Robinson goes way too far on a couple of occasions, notably a scene in mid-movie in which he positions Thompson as some kind of literal prophet. While watching the Nixon/Kennedy debates, the Kemp character says that soon a candidate will come along who makes Nixon look like a liberal, and that Kennedy will win but “they'll never let him live.” Drivel and nonsense; Thompson never thought Nixon was anything other than the ultimate devil, and he not only didn't know Kennedy would get killed, he thought McGovern would win.

If you aren't a Thompson fan, most of the movie's finale will make no sense, and if you are a fan, you should recognize it as pure bunk. Strangely, that doesn't ruin The Rum Diary, which is a slow but nicely paced good time full of beautiful scenery and some excellent quips, perfectly delivered by Depp. Robinson, who directed the druggy British cult hit Withnail and I, has the necessary eccentricity but lacks the audacity and fervor needed to capture the gonzo vibe he's seeking, something maybe too indelibly American for a Brit to replicate.

Follow Bryan Miller on Twitter@bmillercomedy.