The Rum Diary is the Hunter S. Thompson vaguely biographical novel he wrote in 1960, which wasn’t published until 1998. It’d been roundly rejected by publishers in the 1960s and for good reason: It’s not a very good novel, and the movie that’s based on the novel is not a very good movie. Hunter S. Thompson was a brilliant gonzo journalist (and founder of the practice), but he wasn’t much of a novelist: Thompson was best when extracting truth from his fictionalized reality, but he was never much for writing characters, least of all characters based on himself. He was a keen observer who could turn a phrase on a goddamn dime, but he needed a subject, an enemy to focus his drug-and-alcohol fueled stream of consciousness. For most of his life, that subject was Richard Nixon (and to a lesser extent, Reagan and his administration), the nemesis that inspired what in my opinion was the greatest political book of the 21st century, Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ‘72.
Without a mark, however, Thompson’s writing was aimless, ignited every few pages by a spark of rage or insight that could carry the reader to the next moment of self-righteous clarity, and that’s essentially the sum of Johnny Depp’s The Rum Diary, a directionless, meandering, occasionally tedious, and occasionally inspired film directed by Bruce Robinson (Withnail and I).
Depp plays Kemp, a young pseudo-version of Hunter S. Thompson, a journalist working for a dying newspaper in Puerto Rico. He’s given the horoscopes assignment and ordered not to rock any boats by his managing editor (Richard Jenkins). Kemp also connects with Sanderson (Aaron Eckhart), a crooked real-estate developer looking to build hotels on an unspoiled island currently leased by the United States military. Kemp is also smitten with Sanderson’s girlfriend, Chenault, who looks like Amber Heard and smells like apple blossoms. Along with a couple of colleagues from the newspaper, Sala (Michael Rispoli) and occasionally Moburg — a guttural, violently alcoholic freak-show played by Giovanni Ribisi — the cast of characters drinks, smokes, hangs out on the beach and stops every few moments to deliver a few lines from Thompson’s novel until the movie languishes and eventually (after two hours) fizzles out.
The Rum Diary plays like a Hunter S. Thompson origins story that ends before it gets to the good parts (that is, Rolling Stone, Las Vegas, the campaign trail, Nixon, and Reagan, before Thompson ended up at ESPN, of all places, where he wrote about sports until he took his own life). It’s clearly a Johnny Depp vanity project (Depp was friends with Thompson and, in fact, paid for his funeral), and when you’re Johnny Depp, you can get a vanity project on 2100 screens and trick a lot of people into seeing a movie they’d have no interest in if they knew it was essentially a meandering love letter of a film. It is a nice gesture, just not much of a movie, and it only comes alive during a scene in which Kemp is taking issue with Nixon, or when Giovanni Ribisi is stealing scenes, moments that are too few and far between. Depp is mostly an observer in his own movie, a passive character, a toned-down version of his Fear and Loathing character, a role that Depp can easily phone in.
Indeed, the best parts of The Rum Diary — the novel — were Thompson’s own internal monologuing, and while Robinson (who also wrote screenplay) cheats some of that into the script, the movie largely lacks the electricity of Thompson’s writing. That is to say, ye Gods! that as much as I’d like to argue that The Rum Diary is a movie only for Thompson enthusiasts, as someone who read practically every word Thompson ever published, who entered the field of journalism because of Thompson, and who wrote his college thesis on Thompson, I can’t even make that argument. It’s lifeless and boring, and while you can say a great many many dastardly things about Hunter S. Thompson, lifeless and boring were never among them.