Review | The Rum Diary

Review | The Rum Diary

by Joshua P. Ferguson

Hunter S. Thompson isn't for everyone. I consider myself a fanboy, and I can't even keep up with all the guns, politics and angst. But the Hunter that lies at the heart of Paul Kemp, Johnny Depp's character in The Rum Diary, is a Hunter at his mildest—for most of the movie he hasn't yet been stricken with the fear or the loathing. The best and the worst of that is yet to come. When Kemp arrives in old San Juan, he's still bright eyed (when not hung over) and feels a sense of idealistic duty to the field of journalism (when he musters the motivation to actually write). He's the writer, still blossoming, who's yet to discover all he comes to hate about the country he loves. He's also yet to discover his voice, something all writers, artists and musicians can relate to. It's the prequel to   Hunter S. Thompson at his height, the Hunter of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, already showing us all things that do make him appealing.

This is, of course, what makes Paul Kemp appealing as well, so long as you remember that Kemp is really just a thinly veiled Thompson. Given the film's mixed reviews, I feel like this fact is getting lost in translation. Critics seem to get caught up in the story without applying it to Thompson. When they do focus on the connection, they complain that it hasn't got the wild antics and poison-dart-tongue wit of Thompson's other work. The criticism isn't entirely unjust. It's a long movie that's sure to lose the Thompson uninitiated and even the mildly interested at points, but taken as a whole—especially with a third act that goes beyond the book's original plot to become a clever tribute the author—the film is a highly amusing romp and in time, it will reach the same cult status of the man it's based upon.

The plot, taken by itself, is the story of a man with strong ideals and love of a strong drink who travels to an island to search for himself while he writes horoscopes for a mediocre newspaper. He makes a few drunken friends, has a few drunken exploits. He also makes a few powerful friends and proceeds to piss them off during his drunk exploits. Feeling burned, he tries to exact some form of revenge. This doesn't go as planned. So he leaves. He also meets a girl.

It's a lot to try to tie together, and it's not fair of a movie to ask you to do your homework before viewing, but in The Rum Diary's case, it'll help bring those loose ends together and make the movie that much more worth it. Thompson has always been an anti-hero. His book The Curse of Lono has shares this theme. It doesn't end with him sticking it to the man. He practically gets chased out of Hawaii, but he lives to tell the tale and it's another classic Thompson fuck you. Even Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is no more than a series of drug-addled antics but they lead to telling, scary and hilarious observations about the American Dream and our country's greed.

To expect Kemp to succeed is to misunderstand Thompson. If he had exposed the wrongdoing he witnessed in Puerto Rico in a fit of gonzo journalism befitting a Pulitzer it might have given audiences the sort of story arc they expect from a movie, but it wouldn't have been true to the character's inspiration. Kemp doesn't save the day, but he learns a lot about himself in the ordeal, and when he sits down at the typewriter to write, "I want to make a promise to you, the reader. And I don't know if I can fulfill it tomorrow, or even the day after that. But I put the bastards of this world on notice that I do not have their best interests at heart. I will try and speak for my reader. That is my promise. And it will be a voice made of ink and rage," Kemp finds his voice and his purpose in life, and therefore so does Thompson. 

Stepping into the world of Hunter S. Thompson, one can't expect anything resembling normality. There's no such thing as traditional plots, vanquishing the bad guy and saving the day. But the void where those qualities would have been is filled with fire breathing, cockfighting, rum, LSD trips, Hitler speeches, rum, fast cars and a talking lobster who waxes philosophical and tells you something worth knowing. Nothing changes, but at least you understand why. And as Kemp sails away at the film's end, you're left knowing that this is only the beginning for Hunter S. Thompson.


Anonymous said...

Boasts a highly impressive cast and contains some great touches, but it’s too long by a half hour and meanders severely in its second half. Nice review. Check out my review when you get the chance.

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