The Rum Diary Review
In 1998 a ‘long lost’ work of Hunter S. Thompson was finally published: The Rum Diary. Thompson’s youthful 1959 attempt to write The Great American Novel™, something to rival the works of Fitzgerald or Hemingway, was sidetracked by the success of his non-fiction account of the Hell’s Angels, and his career in ‘Gonzo’ journalism snowballed from there. The manuscript was tucked away in his basement until the late 1990s, when renewed interest in Thompson’s work – fuelled in no small part by Johnny Depp’s instant friendship with the man – led to the unearthing of The Rum Diary, not only for a long-awaited book release but for a film project.
Unfortunately the initial movie adaptation floundered due to the usual things like creative disagreements, trouble with the financing etc, and Thompson’s suicide in 2005 seemed to be a terminal end for the Rum Diary movie. But Johnny Depp saw to it that the film was finally made (having tasked himself with keeping Thompson’s flame alive), discarding the previous script and tempting English writer/director Bruce Robinson (Withnail And I) out of retirement to bring both of those talents to the project.
The year is 1960, the place is Puerto Rico. The dishevelled man we've just been introduced to is Paul Kemp (Depp), an American journalist on the lookout for another paying job south of the border, who’s just applied for a post at the San Juan Daily Star newspaper. Upon his arrival he meets the group of drunken reprobates who pass for reporters in this town, among them the paper’s photographer Bob Sala (Michael Rispoli) and foreign correspondant Moberg (Giovanni Ribisi), plus their cynical boss Ed Lotterman (Richard Jenkins). Kemp gets drawn in to the shady business dealings of Sanderson (Aaron Eckhart), an ex-Daily Star employee who happens to have made a lot of money and some powerful friends, and finds himself attracted to Chenault, Sanderson’s gorgeous girlfriend (played by Amber Heard). The consequences of Kemp’s debauchery start to catch up with him and he realises that he must get out of San Juan before the Fear takes him over completely, and before he loses something that he’s only just found: his true voice as a writer.
It is a truth universally acknowledged that all ‘passion projects’ for filmmakers tend to be rather dull, and The Rum Diary is no exception. Depp no doubt fought tooth and nail to realise his dream of playing his friend again (albeit in the form of Paul Kemp, another of Thompson's alternate personas), but the story has been shaped into a more straightforward narrative and so it loses the mesmeric power of Thompson’s stream-of-consciousness prose. Terry Gilliam’s adaptation of Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas was bold enough to retain the heart of that anarchic tale and keep the author’s thoughts as a voice-over, thereby keeping us tuned in to Duke’s manic insights. That first-person aspect is crucial to Thompson’s work, but The Rum Diary eschews that device until very late on.
Depp is part of the problem, as his interpretation of Kemp/Thompson is perhaps too accurate. The man himself always seemed hard to read as regards his emotional state (until he flew into a rage, natch) which doesn’t translate to a particularly captivating performance on screen, not least because Depp’s hiding behind sunglasses most of the time. At least you could see his eyes through Thompson’s beloved yellow-lensed Aviators in Fear And Loathing..., but no such luck this time. Everyone else does what they can with their characters, but they’re all so damnably bland and/or unlikeable it’s hard to care about what happens to any of them. That’s also true of the book, yet we at least had Kemp’s innermost thoughts to keep us going through this perverted parade of vulgar opportunists and vagrant journalists. Without access to those internal musings, Depp's aloof portrayal isn't enough to carry the movie.
As for the story, it goes without saying that something will always be lost in translation from page to screen, but this is not the Rum Diary of the book. Yes, there are people and places and incidents that correspond with the text, but it’s merely a loose framework around which a surprisingly different story has been built. Background players get promoted to major characters, and a noble arc has been created for Kemp where one didn't exist before, turning him into some sort of prophet; in the space of a single scene he predicts Kennedy's presidential win over Nixon, Kennedy's death AND the rise of a tyrant even worse than Nixon (which would be the latter Bush administration). I know that it all jives with what Thompson's true feelings were, yet it's not part of the book and this post-mortem lionisation of the man doesn't sit well with me because it's completely unnecessary.
Lots of other stuff has seemingly been created out of thin air. For example, there's a scene where Sala and Kemp start hallucinating after ingesting some "special" eye drops which is nowhere to be seen on the page, and if I didn’t know any better I’d say that it was put there just to satisfy the audience’s expectations that some weird shit has to go down in a Hunter S. Thompson story. But it’s not like there isn’t a passage in the novel where Kemp starts to lose his mind, because he starts seeing things in the dark, humid, cockroach-infested hell of Sala’s apartment as he tries to wean himself off the booze (the apartment being another pungent detail of the book that has been excised).
The Rum Diary is never clear on what its intentions are. It’s not funny enough for a comedy, it’s not weird enough to freak anyone out, and it carries little dramatic weight. The dash of social commentary and swipe at American expansionism both lack bite, not possessed of the savagely satirical edge of the book. By turning Thompson’s freewheeling account into a conventional narrative that panders to the average viewer, its great strengths have been diluted. And whether the surfeit of new material was culled from Thompson's other experiences or whether it was concocted for the movie, it just doesn't seem to fit in either way. The first-person aspect of his writing begs to be intoned as voice-over, and without it the sense of heat, filth, moral decay and outright desperation that permeates the book has been lost, because the film is too constrained to convey the eloquent madness of Hunter S. Thompson's vernacular. Every part that does resemble the novel is but a sad reminder of what a superior beast that version is.
The movie is presented in a 1.85 widescreen AVC encode. The image is spotlessly clean and detail levels range from good to very soft, with a couple of shots looking like they’ve been airbrushed, and there's no edge enhancement. The colour sits firmly within the modern-day grip of teal and orange, although the gaudy skin tones are appropriate for the Caribbean setting. The contrast range is quite restricted, with a dull appearance (even in daylight) and the black levels are woeful, with every night scene a morass of noisy-looking greys rather than the inky depths which Blu-ray can usually provide. There’s an ever-present layer of fine grain. Some compression artefacts do pop up, but very rarely.
If this was a 35mm or digital production then I’d be disappointed, but The Rum Diary was shot on Super 16, and the fact that it fooled me into thinking it was mediocre 35mm is testament to what can be done with the format nowadays. The improvements in the grain structure of the film stock and the noise-reducing power of a Digital Intermediate (it was finished on a 2K DI, hence the typical teal/orange colour scheme) combine to make Super 16 a surprisingly handsome choice for those on a tight shooting budget who don't want to sacrifice that film look. The washed out blacks could be a problem with the encoding, yet they're a fairly common side-effect of extensive DI grading too, so I'll give the distributors (EiV) the benefit of the doubt.
The audio is given the standard lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix (with a Dolby Digital 2.0 backup), and it sounds splendid. The dialogue is perfectly clear for the most part, Depp's occasional unintelligible mumble being part of the performance, and the music energetically engages the entire sound field. The rears and LFE also show off some nifty spot effects too, such as when the US Army are using an adjacent island as target practice and there are shells fizzing across the speakers and giving the subwoofer a workout as they explode off-screen.
The extras don't appear to be all that impressive, with a trailer and a 12-minute HD puff piece masquerading as a 'making of' documentary, called A Voice made of Ink and Rage: Inside The Rum Diary. Last up is The Rum Diary Back-Story. Don't let the mundane title fool you, as this feature is worth the price of admission alone for Gonzo fans. It's a 46-minute look at how The Rum Diary made it from basement to book to screen, and was made by documentary filmmaker Wayne Ewing. Ewing had previously featured the writer in several documentaries, including Breakfast With Hunter, and as such he had unprecedented access to Thompson at his Owl Farm 'compound' in Colorado.
We get to see Thompson read passages of his work, witness the editing process of the novel, learn of the difficulties that the first film adaptation ran into and more, all backed up by intimate camcorder footage of the man himself. The 4:3 picture quality is pretty bad, but that's a churlish complaint given the material on offer here. The Rum Diary Back-Story is currently available to view as a series of webisodes at hunterthompsonfilms.com, yet it's great to have them all wrapped up in one piece. Ewing's other documentaries are not typically available to buy through regular vendors, and when you do find them they cost a boatload of money, so to have this feature on a Blu-ray (which will undoubtedly be reduced in price before long) is a real bonus.
FYI this dual-layer Blu-ray disc is locked to Region B and auto-starts with skippable trailers for My Week With Marilyn, Texas Killing Fields, Underworld Awakening and Gone.
The Rum Diary manages to do what you'd never think possible with a Hunter S. Thompson story: it's flat-out boring. There's precious little emotional investment in the characters so their zany shenanigans barely register, and the original story has been straightjacketed into a regular movie-type narrative that doesn't convince, not least because of all of the new material that has been shoehorned in. This Blu-ray version presents decent video and audio with a package of extras that isn't extensive, but which does contain a superb documentary about the gestation of the movie project that is HIGHLY recommended viewing for Thompson's fans.