Originally Reviewed – 11/17/2011
Turning a book into a film is one of the trickiest tasks a filmmaker can tackle. The pitfalls are endless: you have to deal with the book’s ardent fans, while appealing to those who’ve never read it. A book can tell you what a character is thinking where a film has to show you visually. People spend much more time with novels, 8 hours on average, than they do watching a 2 hour film, creating a deeper connection with the story. Even the issue of, “that’s not what the lead looked like in the book” will cause nightmares for directors, simply because they can’t compile a cast that will match everybody’s imaginations. So, when director Bruce Robinson set out to make a film based on Hunter S Thompson’s second novel, The Rum Diary, I was skeptical at best. The only other Thompson book to make it to the screen was 1998’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, and thanks to the near maniacal mind of director Terry Gilliam, became an instant cult classic. The Rum Diary, on the other hand, is a much more subdued affair and I was curious how Robinson would take on this unique challenge. The answer? Simply ignore the novel’s plot almost entirely and use choice elements from the book as a back drop to tell the origin story of a literary revolutionary. It’s a fine idea, one that I appreciate as a huge fan of the late novelist. Too bad the film itself is a poorly made mess.
For those who don’t know, The Rum Diary stars Johnny Depp as Paul Kemp, a rum soaked New York journalist who finds himself in 1960’s Puerto Rico working for a struggling newspaper. At the paper, Kemp meets the jaded editor Lotterman (Richard Jenkins), the habitually intoxicated Moberg (Giovanni Ribisi) and Bob Sala (Michael Rispoli), a fellow drinker/journalist who Kemp ends up staying with. Money is tight at the newspaper, so when a high powered land merchant by the name of Sanderson (Aaron Eckhart) offers Kemp a job writing brochure material for a fantastic new Puerto Rican hotel, Kemp jumps at the chance. Puerto Rico, however, is not without hypocrisy and as Kemp delves deeper into the good life of the island’s nouveau riche, he discovers just how full of s**t the whole place happens to be. Fans of the book, beware: while the plot has a passing resemblance to the novel, the similarities end at the synopsis. Literally 85% of the film is the invention of Mr. Robinson who reassigns character roles, makes up strange situations from thin air and removes entire characters from the screenplay. More on that later.
Playing the Thompson-esqe lead character, Depp’s reprisal of the role he played in Fear and Loathing is much more restrained this time around. While still a good performance, he doesn’t get the opportunity to come as unhinged as Gilliam allowed, so fans expecting Fear and Loathing Part 2 will be a bit disappointed. The rest of the cast ranges from welcome surprises to flat out awful. Both Jenkins and Rispoli do fine jobs in their respective roles, giving the film a much needed dose of comic timing while Eckhart is believable yet one noted as the opportunistic land baron. The only blemish in the cast is Amber Heard as Chenault, lover of Sanderson and object of affection for Kemp. While undeniably beautiful, Heard is woefully miscast in the role, a character changed dramatically for the film and not for the better. The result is a strangely plotted love triangle that never gets off the ground or generates any heat.
As a whole, the cast has their moments but much of the work is lost in bland pacing and boring direction. Robinson is a competent director but doesn’t have the visual imagination to inject the type of energy the source material requires. Sure that material is lacking in its own plot, but the scenes Robinson conjures up to make a cohesive story only detracts from the final product. From the cockfighting angle to an uncomfortable scene featuring a witch doctor to Depp’s ridiculous meeting of Chenault, nothing connects properly to the scenes straight from the novel. As a result, the film comes off disjointed and episodic. In fact, the best scenes in the movie are those pulled straight from the book, such as Sala and Kemp’s escape from the burger shop and Chenault’s Carnival dance. The rest of the film suffers from poor pacing and head scratching plot devices, making the end product a fitfully entertaining mixed bag.
All that said, I can’t be too hard on Robinson for the final product. The work of beat writers like Thompson, Kerouac and Ginsberg are often difficult, if impossible to bring to the screen. Not reliant on narrative, beat writing tells the story through the energy of the language. These authors were literary revolutionaries, casting aside traditional form and structure for a mad, freewheeling joyride, saying whatever they want, however they wanted. The Rum Diary is no different, making Robinson’s task an exceedingly difficult one and in the end, I greatly appreciate his efforts. This is the film version of The Rum Diary Thompson himself would have liked to see, a brash strike against commercialism and a triumphant cry for journalist honesty. Problem is, the film itself has so many holes, problems and pratfalls, I have to label it a disappointment, despite my respect for the director’s intentions. Not a good film, but not a miserable one either, The Rum Diary should be seen by those not familiar with the original novel. For those who are already fans, this adaptation is just going to annoy you.
Score – 50%