Film Review: “The Rum Diary”

Dr. Hunter S. Thompson’s first novel.  This surrogate film is a pretty good indicator of why no one read it in 1962.  The film is a series of well-produced and expertly photographed vignettes that don’t go anywhere. Johnny Depp usually turns in a yeoman performance but he seems lost in this role, having little more understanding of it than the audience.

Depp, as the protagonist (thinly veiled HST in his first reporting job) builds on all these experiences to find his true ability as a writer, but the experiences themselves are pretty murky.  The socio-political situation in Puerto Rico at the time adds little if anything to the plot. The “Moberg” character has form but no particular substance and never gets interpreted or builds credibility.  The “greedy bastards” plot fizzles over a drunk female at a Carnival debauchery that leads nowhere.  The real story of Dr. Thompson is has much more substance.

The origin of Dr. Thompson’s degree in Letters is obscure; some say purchased from a diploma mill in LA. But its veracity was never in doubt.  Thompson is credited with pioneering New Journalism — or, as he dubbed it, “gonzo journalism” — in which the writer makes himself an essential component of the story. Much of his earliest work appeared in Rolling Stone magazine when it was literally a tabloid.

Thompson was a counterculture icon at the height of the Watergate era, and Richard Nixon once said he represented “that dark, venal, and incurably violent side of the American character.”  Arguably his most important work was “Fear & Loathing on the Campaign trail, 1972”. Other books include “The Great Shark Hunt,” “Hell’s Angels” and “The Proud Highway.”

Most burned out 60s hippies remember him at the National Affairs Desk of Rolling Stone, where he sent in stories from a prototype FAX he dubbed his “mojo wire”. He rarely warmed up for a story for at least 72 hours of continuous drinking and God knows what else.  In his prime he was brilliant and quirky and unpredictable. At his worst, he was a serious reprobate. All the things that make a great writer.  At the end, he simply didn’t want to fade away.

But fade he did. Thompson was found dead of a self inflicted gunshot wound after a long history of medical issues, many poorly resolved.  Hunter was a lot like Papa Hemmingway. Couldn’t take the vicissitudes of old age and a career winding down. Life just wasn’t fun anymore.

Many quotes attributed to HST.  The best is: “I’m loath to advocate drugs, alcohol, violence or insanity to anyone, but these things have always worked for me.”  And of course in the immortal words of Neil Young…..”It’s better to burn out than fade away”.  There has never been anyone like him and there probably never will be again. He was a unique American Icon.

But the film is pretty mediocre.

High points:  The classic red Austin-Healy 3000 and ’60 Corvette.

Low points:  The rest of the film.

Rotten Tomatoes (reliably accurate ratings) gave it 51% which is low for them. I don’t give it that much.  The film is disjointed and pointlessly meandering.  It gets 2 of 5 smarmy real estate developers polluting the beach.

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