Dear The Rum Diary,
What are you. Are you a fictionalized biopic about the early, formative years of Hunter S. Thompson – given, in your narrative, the pseudonym Paul Kemp? Are you a tale of how neo-colonialism mingled with 1960’s-era American exceptionalism and rampant capitalism to cripple an island nation? Or are you the story of a man lost in an island paradise with too much booze, too many enablers, and not enough hours to nurse the hangover?
One could be forgiven for thinking, after seeing your advertising, that you would be a spiritual prequel to Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Yet anyone who approaches you with the mindset will be sorely disappointed. Whereas that film reveled in its excesses and melded that comical, surreal excess with the shattered idealism of a man who was realizing that his revolution had ended and the world had won, you attempt to approach the material from a more sedated and realistic standpoint. It is a noble goal, especially given your plot line regarding the corruption of the American influence in Puerto Rico, but your other tales and your pretensions toward madcap comedy torpedo that ambition.
Paul Kemp comes to Puerto Rico to work for the San Juan Star, a foundering newspaper run by the increasingly unpopular Americans. The paper caters to the tourists who come to Puerto Rico on boats and planes to spend all their time and money in hotels and resorts, and as such has no room for Kemp’s cynicism and commitment to fighting power. Still, he stays on because it pays well enough and his novels are going nowhere. He is without a voice, and as such is still searching for the real him. Also, he just met Chenault, the lovely girlfriend of American real estate mogel named Sanderson.
Sanderson is in the middle of some shady land dealings and Kemp is in a position of value to Sanderson. The two soon become intertwined, as Sanderson’s lush lifestyle and pretty girlfriend all ensnare Kemp’s attention. Of course he doesn’t agree with the deal that he is unwittingly a part of, but who is he to stop it? Thus begins his journey from go-along-to-get-along journalist to crusading activist. Of course along the way he must imbibe too much rum, have one too many misadventures, and take time to ruefully examine the island culture his fellow Americans are destroying.
Thus the pieces are in place for a rollicking adventure tale that shows a young hooligan becoming galvanized to action by the glimpses of corruption he sees in between black outs. However, as all these players hit the field, there seems to be little game plan to direct them, nor a coach to tell them what to do. Great stretches of your run time seem to be spent treading water, creating lazy, free-flowing little diversions to offer up tiny moments of levity between obviously telegraphed moments where Wrong and Right must clash for control. We learn about 470 proof alcohol, drugs so potent the FBI feeds it to communists, and we see Kemp and his right hand man Zala having to drive a car without a front seat. But none of these scenes coalesce well, and even worse they begin to feel downright out of place and detrimental to the overall story.
Unlike Fear and Loathing, Depps excesses in your tale feel unnecessary and drag down the plot. You come off as the kind of film that is so convinced of the importance and meaning of what it is saying regarding Kemp/Thompson and his revelations regarding the nature of man and society that you don’t feel the need to create a story worth following. You don’t even seem to be convinced of your own necessity for existence. You feel like something done rather than something made. It is hard to convince myself that anyone of your collaborators had an idea of what they were attempting to make when they set to creating you.
Between the romance, the coming of age of a struggling writer, and the fight against the crushing, oppressive force of capitalism, I can’t tell which story I am supposed to find more important – that they are all underserved and underdeveloped does not help much. Had you somehow wound all of them together, you might have come to more than the sum of your parts. As it stands, while the writer and his cause come together in a single moment, the love story derails and undercuts both.
You have your moments of fun and interest, and all of your actors give their best shot at creating energetic and engaging scenes, but between your uncertainty of your own narrative and the “what are we building toward” nature of what little plot we get, I can’t say I recommend you that much. Better, it would seem to me, to just watch Fear and Loathing again, as that is clearly the tale you are building toward with your narrative. Not only is Depp still channeling (though in a more muted way) the same old Hunter S. Thompson, but Kemp’s sidekick Zala is clearly a knockoff of the archetype of Dr. Gonzo, hair, voice, paunch and all. Still, for all your attempts to take on the trappings of that far superior film, you fail to make a convincing approximation.
Brian J. Roan