Movie review: The Rum Diary

Hot wings do not a dinner make, and, typically, the work of a good author does not a good film make. And yet, last Sunday night provided an experience to the contrary on both counts. Sort of. A dozen wings and double that in Budweiser fluid ounces, alone, will not commend anyone to longevity or short-term comfort, but the film adaptation of Hunter Thompson’s early, long-unpublished novel, The Rum Diary, is a success.

Johnny Depp reprises his role as a Thompson protagonist/stand-in from 1998’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas to portray Paul Kemp, a mainland American journalist and aspiring novelist who lands in Puerto Rico in 1960 looking for some money and, he hopes, his voice as a writer.

Not quite a comedy, not quite a romance, not quite a political drama, not quite a history, The Rum Diary has everything and nothing all at once. I tried reading the book once, in Iceland, but I couldn’t finish it because it didn’t seem to have a plot. I later realized that I hadn’t understood it, but, having borrowed the book the first time around, I never finished reading. It isn’t unlike Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises as an account of what it was like to live in a place and a culture at a certain time, told from a particular perspective of a semi-outsider who largely took an observational posture but also wanted something for himself.

There’s no need to get pretentious about this, though– indeed, that’s pretty much the opposite of the point– even if the author of the underlying work was writing a book about writing that same book. The movie version of The Rum Diary had the Sunday-night audience paying attention, laughing, and enjoying the vistas– scenic and human– and well-crafted dialogue, even if they weren’t too terribly informed about the story’s origin.* Highly recommended.

* As the cameras are pulling back from the puertorriqueño scenery and just before the closing credits roll, the screen shows something like “In memory of Hunter S. Thompson 1937-2005,” to which the young gal behind us asked, “Is that a real person or something?” A good question.

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