Hunter S. Thompson was many things, but a man of half-measures was not among them. So perhaps that’s why Johnny Depp’s long-gestating adaptation of the author’s novel The Rum Diary feels so disappointing and – an awful critique of any work related to Thompson – uninteresting.
For his part, Depp is committed and convincing as a young Thompson getting his journalistic legs under him in 1960s Puerto Rico. He plays the odd ticks and slurred speech with panache and often wise restraint, as this is character is a messy but mostly functional drunk, not the drug-addled marionette that many think of as later-year Thompson.
But whereas Depp’s performance achieves a sort of misanthropic balance, the rest of the film feels decidedly limp-wristed by playing things so middle-of-the-road. The story involves a young alcoholic reporter stationed in Puerto Rico, where he observes the injustice of the local politics and commercially-driven politics of print journalism, while also finding time to fall in love with a taken girl and consume unholy amounts of the local booze. The societal situation in Puerto Rico is never full sketched, and thus any relevant critique of American policy or insights into inter-cultural relations is murky at best (Thompson fleshes this out adroitly and passionately in the novel). Aaron Eckhart is charmingly reptilian as a white mogul looking to fleece the locals of their land, but the character never rises above cliché. Neither does Gionvanni Ribisi’s surly hyper-drunk lout of a failed journalist, chewing scenery with bulging bloodshot eyes and chaotic arm movements. The actors are trying, and the film’s attempts or empathy are genuine, but the whole thing feels hesitant, unfocused, and rather pointless.
Granted, The Rum Diary is not a particularly zany novel. It’s a snapshot of a Hunter S. Thompson who is a bit more innocent and idealistic than the later incarnations. But it’s also not a particularly good book. The adaptation feels like the sincere effort of a fanboy (Depp) committed to bringing everything of his idol to the screen that he can…even if the director, co-stars, and audience could never care as much about the material as he does.
A DJ named Pogo has been doing these for numerous films, and you can check them all out on YouTube. I just thought this one from A.I. was a good sample.