I was never idle long enough to do much thinking, but I felt somehow that some of us were making real progress, that we had taken an honest road, and that the best of us would inevitably make it over the top. At the same time, I shared a dark suspicion that the life we were leading was a lost cause, that we were all actors, kidding ourselves along on a senseless odyssey. It was the tension between these two poles—a restless idealism on one hand and a sense of impending doom on the other—that kept me going.
—Hunter S. Thompson, The Rum Diary
As Paul Kemp (Johnny Depp) wakes in a wrecked hotel room in Puerto Rico, the camera in The Rum Diary pushes close to his bloodshot eye. He’s had a rough night, but you know that before you saw the socks on the floor or the disheveled bed, because every night is rough for Paul, yet another of Hunter S. Thompson’s autobiographical fictions. This version is seeking employment at a newspaper, the San Juan Star, hoping to earn money for his words, which he writes anyway, because writing is his primary addiction, among a host of notorious addictions.
Based on Thompson’s unfinished 1959 novel—which Depp discovered in the writer’s basement while he was researching his role in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas—the movie is respectful and dopey at once, faithful to the source and so, episodic, and also fine with using characters as props for Paul’s mostly internal journey. These props include his furious editor, the so obviously named Lotterman (Richard Jenkins), his drinking buddy, the staff photographer Sala (Michael Rispoli), and the conscience of the piece, Moburg (Giovanni Ribisi), perpetually high and miserable and so able to voice the discontent that everyone feels.
As Paul tries to sort out his own relationship to the generalized power structure—he knows he despises the crooks and the charlatans, but exploits others when he can, to get by, you know—he resents Lotterman, indulges with Sala in cockfighting, sweating, and general mayhem, and starts chatting with real estate mogul Sanderson (Aaron Eckhart). When Sanderson suggests that he wants Paul’s words, that is, to have him writing propaganda for a real estate scheme he’s got cooking with some predictably risible fat cats, he seduces him with a visit to his beachfront home, decorated with his fiancée Chenault (Amber Heard). The men exchange ideas, and maybe make a deal, and Paul is emphatically distracted by the girl, thinking he’s in love with her.
Chenault becomes the film’s major metaphor, a beautiful property, outfitted in a gauzy beach robe and tight red carnival frock. As she dances and writhes and has sex with Sanderson in public (or rather, in plain view of a telescope wielded by Paul), she’s increasingly an object of desire and misunderstanding. Her own motives are never clear, though Paul’s fantasy that she’s actually in love with him seems to inform her choices as the film’s long nights go on. During one exceptionally disturbing sequence, she bothers both Paul and Sanderson by dancing with dark-skinned, nameless, and odious local boys, whereupon her white suitors act out badly and find themselves tossed from the nightclub premises. Paul is horrified by what he knows will be her fate (the conventional one worse than death), while Sanderson is insulted: guess who is the better man?
This being a film that takes Paul’s/Thomson’s view absolutely, the girl’s is never visible. What happens to her that night is left off screen, so that the men’s reactions are centered. (That these reactions go so far as allowing her to feel and express her apology for what’s happened is broadly archetypal and expected but tedious nonetheless). This literal-mindedness about Thompson’s metaphors infuses the film: scary (Spanish-speaking, scar-faced) Puerto Rican natives threaten Paul and Salas during their wild nights, rich white men look overstuffed in their wicker chairs, and Lotterman’s corruption is littered all over the dingy newspaper office, from whence the real men—the writers—escape to the bar, where they smoke and drink and complain.
And, as much as The Rum Diary genuflects to the artist, it seems also to miss what is great about him. That’s not the story (which is just what you know it will be), but the words. As these are lost in the translation to visuals—by turn antic, grim, and, too briefly, hallucinatory—the film becomes silly and slow. The slowness seems the most terrible effect, as Thompson’s spewing was never that.