There’s nothing Gonzo about this slapstick romcom

Despite the best efforts of both star and director, The Rum Diary does little justice to Hunter S Thompson’s prose.

Tom Slater

Tom Slater

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Along with his Beat generation forbear Jack Kerouac, Hunter S Thompson is one of the most beloved and fetishised figures of the American counter-culture. He is rightfully remembered as the father of Gonzo journalism and a significant prose stylist. Yet all too often Thompson is enshrined purely for his alternative lifestyle.

While he was a life-long experimenter with drugs, and firmly opposed Nixon’s anti-narcotic propaganda, Thompson also critiqued the 1960s psychedelic movement’s misplaced belief in the transcendent power of hallucinogenics. His most famous work, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, is as much a mournful reflection on the counter-culture’s failings as it is a rollercoaster ride through the drug-addled mind. Nevertheless, along with the likes of Timothy Leary and Allen Ginsberg, Thompson has been appropriated as an icon of decadent drug-fuelled rebellion.

Terry Gilliam’s 1998 fun and faithful retelling of Fear and Loathing has cemented the figure of Thompson into our cultural consciousness. Yet, as enjoyable as it was, the film heavily indulged the depraved image we have of the man. The Rum Diary, a new adaptation of one of Thompson’s early prose experiments, attempts to deflect his cool image and reassert him as a valiant figure who railed against the muddy American morals of his time.

The film tells the story of struggling novelist and alcoholic Paul Kemp (Johnny Depp), who gets a job at a Puerto Rican newspaper, the San Juan Star, writing horoscopes and covering bowling championships. Read primarily by ignorant holidaying Yanks, the newspaper purposefully rejects any content about the great social injustice which takes place outside of the holiday resorts. At first content to lay low and drink rum with his fellow degenerate writers, Kemp suddenly stumbles upon a horrifying story and decides to defy his editors in order to speak the truth.

Although director Bruce Robinson sets out with the best of intentions, The Rum Diary manages to obliterate any trace of Thompson’s idiosyncratic style, by turning his novel into a glossy hybrid of a buddy movie and a romantic comedy. For a considerable amount of the film, Kemp is either getting into slapstick drunken scrapes with his chubby sidekick Bob Sala (Michael Rispoli), or lusting after saucy love interest Chenault (Amber Heard). These scenes rob us of any real insight into Thompson’s early artistic development, and the film ends up resembling a slightly more sinister version of The Hangover.

On occasion the focus drifts back to Kemp’s fight for journalistic truth, but this comes off as rather corny and sits awkwardly alongside the film’s goofier set pieces. At points, Kemp starts philosophising about the moral bankruptcy of Nixon or the poverty in the villages of Puerto Rico, but soon he is launched into yet another zany scene.

A friend and disciple of Thompson, Depp lived with the writer in preparation for his starring role in Fear and Loathing. As with Raoul Duke in that film, Kemp in The Rum Diary is a fictionalised version of Thompson. Here, Depp offers a similarly off-beat, yet affecting performance. Indeed the scenes in which Depp is given some space, away from the cheap gags, to channel his old friend are particularly captivating. However, while his informed Thompson impression brings some measure of validity, it only highlights the film’s failure to bring the novel to anything but fitful life.

Following the success of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Thompson felt incredible pressure to live up to the persona he had created for himself. He would often say that, when asked to give interviews or public lectures, he was unsure whether the people wanted to see Thompson or Duke. Now, 40 years after Fear and Loathing was published, Thompson continues to be thought of as a hedonistic caricature.

While The Rum Diary attempts to challenge this image and reclaim the man from the legend, it only recasts Thompson as the romantic underdog in an inane comedic drama.

Tom Slater is spiked’s film reviewer. Visit his blog here.

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