Sunday, 20 November 2011

Review: The Rum Diary

Set in late 1950s San Juan, The Rum Diary was written in the early 1960s, but not published until 1998. Described as 'the long lost novel', Hunter S Thompson wrote it when he was only 22, before getting caught up in the political world of 1960s and 1970s America, which was to consume his work for the rest of his life. HST was famous for railing against corruption, being the credited creator of Gonzo journalism, chronicling the death of the American Dream, and taking a hell of a lot of drugs. He also hated Richard Nixon with a passion, and agreed to meet with him on the condition that they would only discuss football. He once ran for Sheriff of Pitkin County, Colorado under the banner of 'Freak Power'; during this campaign he shaved his head so that he would be able to refer to the Republican candidate, who had a crew cut, as 'my long-haired opponent'. HST, suffering health problems and depressed about the re-election of Bush, shot himself in 2005 and died of his wounds. His ashes were shot out of a giant cannon shaped like a Gonzo fist, which was paid for by his friend Johnny Depp, the star of the film of Thompson's other semi-autobiographical novel, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.

The Rum Diary is set before Thompson became famous, before Thompson had become Thompson, in a way. Depp and Robinson have messed about with the story a little, (a subplot about cockfighting and voodoo has been added) but the essence of the plot remains intact. Paul Kemp is the Thompson character, played here by Depp who is clearly relishing the opportunity to return to portraying HST (albeit a slightly less crazy and drugged up version of him than in Fear and Loathing). Kemp rocks up in San Juan to work for a local American run newspaper, but gets caught in the drama of the ex-pat community, and the machinations of various corrupt money men (and drinks a lot of rum while he's doing it).

Robinson and Depp have inserted some notes into the film that are not in the original book, and which smack very strongly of hindsight; some of these work well, others not so well. For example, the hilarious scene in which Kemp breathes rum-fuelled fire onto pursuers during a car chase, and the scene where he gets high on some sort of deadly eyedrops (before seeing his photographer buddy Sala's tongue come snaking out of his mouth like an anaconda) are not in the novel, nor would they have fitted very well into the novel. But, they work very well in the film because they are clear references to the crazier, more drug-fuelled, subjective and experimental nature of Thompson's later work. There are also occasional welcome flashes of Robinson's most famous work, Withnail and I, a chronicle of two out of work actors in 1960s London.

However, there has also been a rather contrived attempt to foreshadow Thompson's later career (when he developed a penchant for flaming corrupt political swine in the free press). The end of Robinson's The Rum Diary has Kemp, along with some of his fellow down-and-out journos, attempting to rally together against the corruption and profiteering they feel has scuppered their paper; they plan to fund and put out one last edition of it themselves before it goes under for good (a plan which. The fact that they fail in this attempt is crucial; if they hadn't failed (in short, if a Hollywood-style ending had been jammed onto the thing) then the film wouldn't have made any sense at all in the context of Thompson's life and work. Even so, the failure of the paper seems to have been used here as a catalyst for Kemp's/Thompson's later angry political writings, exposing 'the bastards' as they are called in the film (Thompson would probably have gone for 'swine').

This feels just a little bit too forced for comfort, especially when combined with the cringeworthy little epilogue just before the credits in which Kemp's/Thompson's later life is capsuled down for us. One of the great things about stories like The Rum Diary, or Fear and Loathing, is their open-endedness. We don't need or want to know what happened next; what we've read on paper or seen onscreen should be enough. If Thompson had wanted us to know more, he would have written it down.

While it doesn't come close the crazed brilliance of Fear and Loathing, in spite of its flaws The Rum Diary is still a funny and realistic interpretation of the novel, and of HST's general philosophy of life. As far as adaptations go, it is incredibly good - certain scenes looked exactly how I had imagined them when reading the book, and certain characters too (Giovanni Ribisi's insane drunken Moberg is especially good). A lot of money has obviously been spent making this film look like it's dropped right out of the fifties. There is never a single moment where the illusion is not one hundred percent; plus it'll make you want to go right out and smoke and drink up a storm. The Rum Diary is a KINOLENS Film of the Moment, and well worth a watch whether you're a Thompson afficionado or not (although you'll certainly get a bit more out of it if you are).

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