According to mirror theory you can see the author’s own experiences, fears, and opinions reflected in their work. No writer’s catalogue is more representative of mirror theory than Hunter S. Thompson. The inventor of the “gonzo” style of journalism, he penned “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas”, one of my favorite books, and the film adaptation, of which I consider to be Johnny Depp’s greatest film. “The Rum Diary” tells the story of a young budding journalist named Paul Kemp and his adventures in the island paradise of Puerto Rico. Kemp mirrors a much younger Thompson than his counterpart Duke in Fear and Loathing. Kemp is more openly idealistic and brash, and much less twisted on drugs (unless you count alcohol as a drug). The result is a tamer experience than “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” , and one that is much more erratic in quality.
Thompson and Depp were close friends before Thompson killed himself in 2005. The Rum Diary is very much a labor of love for Depp. He found the manuscript for the book among Thompson’s things, and it was he who pushed to get it published and a film made. You can tell that Depp takes this role seriously. The best parts of the movie are directly tied to his performance. His mumbling accent from Fear and Loathing is back; Depp’s interpretation of how Thompson talked in real life. Another returning concept from Fear and Loathing is the background narration. These moments are few and far between but when they do happen they are brilliant.
Another thing Fear and Loathing and the Rum Diary share is a lack of a clear direction. This worked positively with Fear and Loathing because it contributed to the psychedelic aesthetic. In The Rum Diary the plot just feels thin and pointless. You feel like you are watching a few key events stringed together with boring filler. You’ll spend more time waiting for something meaningful to happen than you will spend watching something significant. At two hours length this movie is a real exercise in patience.
The supporting cast are interesting characters but not nearly developed enough to make the viewer actually care about any of them. The only character you can really sympathize with is Kemp, but even then there is much to be desired. Early on they establish that he is a severe alcoholic and an excellent writer, but that is all the background information you’re given. He is revealed to be cerebral and idealistic by his monologues but there is still something missing. Kemp is too much of a blank slate for this movie. He is simply along for the ride; the watchers are just observers by proxy to what is going on around him. This technique can work in some films (see: Apocalypse Now) but the Rum Diary really doesn’t have anything interesting to observe. While he was a likable character I still had a hard time caring about what happened to him.
When the brilliance of Hunter Thompson’s writing shines through, particularly in monologues, this film is worth watching. These moments however are diamonds in the rough. The lack of anything compelling in the film at all makes it a bore to watch. Only the biggest Hunter Thompson fans are actually going to really enjoy this film. While its few profound moments really shine, the paper thin plot and weak characters hold this movie back. Throw in a completely lackluster conclusion and you have the recipe for one of the biggest disappointments of the year.
The Good: Johnny Depp’s performance as well as the monologues of Hunter Thompson writing.
The Bad: Just about everything else; weak plot, static characters, terrible finale.
The Ugly: How good this movie could have been pisses me off.