The Rum Diary is one film that pays for the audience to know a little something about the author of the novel that inspired it going in. I’m not the least bit versed in Hunter S. Thompson’s work and aside from Terry Gilliam’s mind melting film don’t claim to know the first thing about Gonzo. Compared to what Gilliam showed us in Fear and Loathing In Las Vegas, The Rum Diary is nothing close that trip-tastic odyssey as this story is about Thompson (through his fictitious character Kemp) finding the method that would become his madness.
Bored with the noise and madness of NYC in the 60’s, unhinged alcoholic journalist Paul Kemp has taken a job at a failing Puerto Rican newspaper, The San Juan Star. Run by a downtrodden editor Kemp’s desire to do decent pieces is lost amidst his own drinking problem and the welcoming and relaxed rum-soaked lifestyle of the island. It’s evident he’s not a man without his flaws but even on his worst day, down here he’s one of the sharpest knives in this drawer. Soon Kemp becomes acquainted with a businessman who is tied to shady property development deals and one of a growing number of American entrepreneurs trying to convert Puerto Rico into a capitalist paradise to service the wealthy. Kemp sees that he’s being used to write favorably on these seedy dealings and so shuns the backing of these corrupt businessmen and searches to find his own voice to expose and take them down.
Sounds like a fulfilling rise up and take down the baddies kind of story doesn’t it? Well let me be the first to tell you it isn’t and if Hunter has anything to do with this (being his first novel) then the story is anything but straight forward. The narrative of the story is sluggish as it seems like there are 4 different stories are trying to breakout here. First is the the eccentric side of Kemp trying to maintain and even moral keel but that’s tough when everyone he meets lives and acts like they’ve checked their own morals at the airport long ago. Next is the dramatic thriller portion; greedy businessmen and their hotel development under-dealings. Then there’s the odd and quirky humor which feels thrown in as if Bruce Robinson thought the audience would get bored if this didn’t have strangely hysterical comic subtext. Last is the inspiring origin story of Kemp rising against the greedy bastards keeping Puerto Ricans in destitute.
Well take those 4 points and shoehorn them together and what do you get? Exactly what it sounds like; four stories with quasi-equal merit and intrigue that don’t assemble to form a satisfying whole. It’s a story of a character (and in turn Thompson) finding his own voice among all the lost souls and the corrupt in Puerto Rico. He also, under the surface, is trying to maintain his will power and calibrating his moral compass. The comedy and the drama are the strongest components of the film are but at the same time kind of work against each other; the humor doesn’t further the drama and vice-versa. Still, representative of Thompson’s persona and writing, the humor is raw and even as it bordered on offensive it is just downright brilliant.
For what is ultimately, forgive me comparing this to a comic book film, the origin story of a fictitious character (and not the misleading ride through the perils of excess as advertised in this poster) this doesn’t come anywhere close to being as fulfilling. This is like a precursor to an origin story, or like the story of a man on a road trip but all we see him do is buy a map for 2 hours. We get glimpses to little vignettes of Kemp (who is ultimately Thompson) but few of the events and experiences have the weight to show what cements his drive and ambition. The comic bits, though hysterical when either sly or over the top, seemed to take away from the character progression which made the arc more of a lateral progression if anything. The supporting cast is fine and probably Richard Jenkins deserves the most recognition despite having the least screen time. Still, aside from Michael Rispoli, most everyone ends up being scenery in a film that, weighted by its multifaceted narrative, never really gets off the ground.
In the end The Rum Diary becomes a mixed back of scenes that range from funny, to pensive, to dramatic with no clear consistency save for the plucky jazzy Latin music attempting to create a cohesion. This is a point in Thompson’s life (his first novel) where he (or simply his Kemp character) was finding his voice and to some point the story laboriously reflects that. It’s ultimately forced and tied up and we would have gotten the point of Thompson’s personal gestation (and Kemp’s fictitious growth) had The Rum Diary been trimmed down by 20 minutes. Jenkins tells Kemp about Puerto Rico in a way that can seem a metaphor for life when he states “there’s a thin membrane between the dream and reality. Wake them up and they may want their money back“. Kemp tries to keep his altruism despite being dissuaded against and when it comes time that he’s learned something from his ordeal The Rum Diary tells us that all of this are just the first few steps towards the long and frenzied life to come. But this imbibed and bloated trip doesn’t offer characters compelling enough to follow them beyond their sluggish departure from the starting blocks.
Now don’t get me wrong. This doesn’t mean The Rum Diary isn’t enjoyable it just might be too bland and unfocused for what it sets out to attain. This is a film I am certainly going to need to see again once I do my homework on Thompson but it probably won’t help the disjointed scenes cohere any better. Those of you who know Withnail and I will be familiar with Robinson’s style should appreciate The Rum Diary as it shares that level of off beat humor. Fans of Thompson may also enjoy Depp’s portrayal of Kemp’s (and in turn Thompson’s) developmental stages but again it all just felt like there were too many movies in there to vying for your attention and none of them ever fully connect or materialize.