This may well be more of a catharsis than any form of coherent review. And yes, at times it may veer very near to my oft held rebellious stance of comparing a book to a film, but the reasons will hopefully become clear by the close.
This was a real mess of a film. A real mess. That’s not to say it is all bad, indeed for some parts it is a refreshing piece of work, full of bravery and independent voice and vision, but these moments are soon swept aside.
The central problem seems to be the ‘plot’, which is shoehorned in on top of the original ‘story’. There is a vast difference between plot and story and The Rum Diary is a great story, with very little plot. It’s the story of a man finding himself, his voice and his physical capacity for rum in a place where he was expecting to see the world and saw only the greedy destructive hand of the America he was running from. Here, we get that in the form of lazy, preachy, patronising ‘plot’ as the young (*cough, more on that in a bit) journalist hero becomes embroiled in a corrupt plot to steal one of Puerto Rico’s islands to turn it into a luxury resort.
It seems to be that to get something funded nowadays you need to signpost everything for an audience which is sickening, so here the fact that America is raping the rest of the world’s beauty is told through characters telling you that, in voiceover or with gleeful smiles as they repeatedly mention the Ocean of Money (I think Aaron Eckhart says this line 3 times) and the American Dream.
The film works when it is a mess. When it’s clunky and we are following Johnny Depp’s character getting drunk and high with two very weird friends and getting into trouble with the locals it’s a lot of fun and far more interesting. The themes and meaning sweat to the surface and most of the best scenes could still have involved corrupt Americans, with braver writing that fought for the chance to reveal the meaning through character and simple action, rather than ham-fisted thriller plot. There is a great scene where the Americans go off the beaten track during a carnival and shame follows as the young girl, the love interest is retained in a club and the men are forced to leave her there to her destiny. It’s beautifully handled and tells more of Western arrogance and colonial reality than 50 shots of Aaron Eckhart in a white shirt, smoking a fat cigar explaining about Oceans of Money and how only he can get at it, yada yada.
Also, Depp is too old for the role. He’s great in parts and thankfully keeps the tics to a minimum. I would like to have seen Depp in the Sala role, with a strong enough young lead to ensure that Depp didn’t cloud the film with too much Jack Sparrow/Tonto madness. But alas, I guess he needed to be the star to get it made, and he wanted another crack at the good Doctor.
And the voiceover, where the film is most reminiscent of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and are thankfully kept to a minimum. In support Giovanni Ribisi, Michael Rispoli and Richard Jenkins are superb, with Amber Heard providing the perfect balance of sexual threat and innocence.
Why am I spending so much time on a film that I clearly didn’t like too much? A film, that I would normally give a few lines over to and then run off giggling from. Well, it’s Hunter S Thompson.
The Rum Diary is his first novel, completed to his (sort of satisfaction) that finally saw the light of day in the 90s and tells of his coming of age as a journalist, and young American voice of dissent. The book has a similar tone and feel to that of Che Guevara’s Motorcycle Diaries, where he goes in search of a good time and sees that all is not well and good. It’s subtle, and fun, and lewd, and raw and clumsy. Like youth.
The reason I don’t like this adaptation is not that they have changed it. It’s that they have added on so much plot nonsense and over-egged ‘meaning’ that the book is lost, making me think as always in situations like this, why not just write a new screenplay about a journalist in South America getting caught up in political and social scandals and intrigue. Why take this book, which isn’t about that, and make it unrecognisable.
This wouldn’t even matter so much if it was a good film, but Depp and director Bruce Robinson clearly love Thompson and the text and fought tooth and nail to keep in some of the rawness, the wide eyed discovery and the savage drug taking. That’s why I am spending so much time on it, because they fought to get it made, and in glimpses the rewards are up on the screen; when people just get drunk, sit around, seek out good times and more drugs, drive fast, get into local scrapes and go to the carnival. That’s why it deserves so many words, because like Thompson, it is fighting a good fight, and sometimes even utter defeat of ambition deserves credit and time spent on it.
So watch it, and when it’s slow, and clumsy, and not a lot is happening, revel in the beauty and the truth that is seeping up, for therein lies the greatness of the source. And the rest of the time, rail against the unseen powers that think we are stupid and need the world’s reality spoonfed because we are too dumb to feel.