The Rum Diary, so the story goes, was found in manuscript form in the attic of Hunter S. Thompson by Johnny Depp, some 30-odd years after first being written by a young Thompson.
Depp encouraged his friend to release the story, and in 1998 the long-lost novel was published. The book sees Paul Kemp, Thompson’s young alter-ego who would grow into the wild and drug-addled Raoul Duke leave the stress of 1960s New York for the golden sands and drunken chaos of San Juan, Puerto Rico.
For the most part, we see a rather mellow vision of Thompson enjoying the languid life of a rum-drenched roving journalist working at an English language newspaper in South America, yet to discover the wild world of experimental drugs that would ultimately propel him to revered infamy. Taking on the role of producer, star, Depp takes on the mantel of portraying the ‘king of gonzo’ for the second time in his illustrious career.
Though undoubtedly charming – adapted for the screen and directed with aplomb by Bruce Robinson (Withnail & I) – The Rum Diary ultimately betrays the ambience and indeed even the title of its source text. For all its smart dialogue and 16mm cool, it is a disappointingly sober affair.
While the book portrays a romantic vision of casual alcoholism in the face of the Death of the quote-unquote American Dream, the film takes a higher focus on a vague romance between the disgustingly beautiful couple of Kemp and Chenault (Amber Heard).
Despite opening with Kemp throwing open the curtains of his hotel room to cast a painful light on a blood-shot hangover, the film progresses with very little of the erratic drinking one might have expected to see.
The inconsistent pace of the narrative, made up of poorly connected incidents, also works to lose the frenetic feeling of Thompson’s prose.
There is little mention of Kemp’s fear of failure; though his often-suave manner contrasts starkly with the chaotic newspaper office in which he works. Depp’s portrayal is lacking in nuance. Much like the battered Fiat Cinquecento he uses to drive around the island, rattling along in the same half-rusted gear for much of the film.
This is, however, not a bad film by any stretch of the imagination and what it does well, it does very well. The broadly excellent cast work brilliantly with Robinson’s often sharp and witty dialogue, and the narrative, though a little laborious in part, does well to portray corporate greed and the defiling of America’s outlying islands in the 1960s.
It will, no doubt, earn its mandatory accolade of being ‘smart, sexy and funny’ from various glossy housewife magazines. However, from the perspective of a big fan of ‘The Good Doctor’, The Rum Diary ultimately serves as more of an unfulfilling vanity project for Mr Depp than it does a fitting memorial for Hunter Stockton Thompson.