One of the few films creating genuine excitement this year has been Bruce Robinson’s adaptation of Hunter S. Thompson’s fantastic book The Rum Diary. Being a huge Hunter fan in the first place, I was initially worried about a multi-plex release of the novel and after seeing it, I feel that this worry was well placed. For a real and honest approach to the work and life of Hunter S. Thompson, the only true way to get a taste of it is to read his books. It’s with this sadness that I learnt Robinson used only one line of original dialogue from the book (Robinson was screenwriter too).
Though a minor quibble for something that wouldn’t affect people who haven’t a clue who Hunter is, it made the film incredibly hit and miss. The incredible aspect being how brilliant the hits are and how utterly terrible the misses are. Hunter’s work has often balanced political anger and bile with dark but trippy humour often demolishing the American dream and it’s this combination that makes it work. However the film simply has not got this balance right, adding far too many elements to the mix making it highly ungonzo like indeed (gonzo being the form of journalism Hunter created).
Concerning journalist Paul Kemp moving from New York to Puerto Rico, it follows his career as he steadily uncovers the truthful ugliness of the American dream and the evil corruption of American capitalism. Being a semi autobiographical work (ish), Johnny Depp is always going to be the perfect choice to play Hunter/Paul. He’s long been associated with the man himself since starring in Terry Gilliam’s wonderful adaptation of Hunter’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and has since been unable to leave the character of Raoul Duke (Hunter’s other alter ego) behind, reprising his role mainly in voice work for documentaries. Depp truly understands Hunter well, having been good friends with him and it’s also easy to see which sections of the film came under his attention as producer (and also which sections were stuck in by the other producers). Talking of Gilliam’s film, it’s sad to see such a difference in quality of work. Though depicting two different periods from the writer’s life, one has got the balance exactly right, even to the point where Hunter himself is happy to cameo in the film (obviously before his suicide in 2005), while The Rum Diary on the other hand is a mixture of both the brilliant and the terrible.
Where this film gets it right is in its attacks on the American dream and also it’s more comedic elements. Various speeches, both from characters and in first person speak of corruption and capitalism in the ways Hunter always did best. It’s these scenes in particular that the film could have done with more of, especially Paul’s conversation with his editor about having to pay to see the sea because hotels block the view and also when Paul connects the starving children in the streets to the profits of an American company. Like these scenes, the quality of the comedic moments is also high with some hilarious car chases and some funny supporting characters, one of whom interrupts Paul’s love scene in the most hilarious way seen in film for years.
It is here however where the praise ends as the film simply didn’t have enough of either of these aspects. Though boasting no major name studios in its production, the film has clearly had to pander to the mainstream and make a love interest to keep the average filmgoers happy. Though there is the same interest in the novel, the emphasis has been moved from a dark, metaphorical lust, representing just another product of capitalism, to it simply being a boy meets girl thing. Even Amber Heard’s entrance to the film seems ridiculous thanks to the way it was shot and the score for whenever she’s onscreen is sickly, emotive chocolate box nonsense. It sticks out like a sore thumb, and the scenes involving her could be from an entirely different film rather than a Gonzo inspired extravaganza. This is quite a surprising move from the man who directed Withnail and I but really it was to be expected in our modern multi-plex obsession with” happily ever after” romantic endeavours and it is this element, along with some rather stifled visuals towards the end, that leaves this film an average watch. Hunter deserves better than this.