Hunter S. Thompson occupies a mythical place in the pantheon of journalists. He held nothing sacred and took no prisoners in attacking what Rick Perlstein later called “Nixonland.”
It’s somewhat surprising that only two movies have been made of his books. The first, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, which stars Johnny Depp as Thompson, told the story about a drug-fueled hallucinatory vacation in which Thompson tries to elude police officers (standing in for the Republican state) who have merged with his nightmare view of his surroundings. The more recent, The Rum Diary, which stars Johnny Depp as a fictional character based on a journalist Thompson once knew, is better but more dull, and almost entirely substance-free until two-thirds of the way through. It takes place in 1960 San Juan, Puerto Rico, after the tourists and the hotels have arrived but before they’ve completely taken over. In one long scene (unfortunately, a little too long—I’m all for talky movies but I really did almost fall asleep during this one), the main character complains to his editor that the rich people have bought up all the views of the sea, and his boss tells him about how that’s the way it is. The journalist gets mixed up with some shady crooks pretending to be serious businessmen, and (SPOILER) escapes unscathed except for the loss of his job.
The movie offers a very nice look at an “untouched” Puerto Rico before it becomes urbanized, industrialized, and turned into a huge tourist destination. There are some beautiful scenes of the rain forest and the beach, and of San Juan street scenes that are probably much less populated than what most people living today have ever seen. The film pulls off the trick of getting luxury hotels and expensive beachfront houses onscreen in a way that shows off their beauty without hiding the ugliness and suffering that made them possible. The scenes where Aaron Eckhardt’s skeevy “investor” tempts Depp’s character into his schemes are truly creepy, without any of the attempts to make sure the rich guy looks desirable and admirable, in some sense, that you often see in these kinds of scenes (a multitude of roles cast with Michael Douglas come to mind).
The movie ends with an attempt to make an apparently political point. I’m not sure what it is, except that viewers should root for the little guy (as long as, like Hunter S. Thompson and his friends, their littleness has long been a matter of history). I don’t know what Thompson’s politics was, other than that he hated Nixon and thought most drugs should be legalized. Poor Puerto Ricans are pitied for losing their homes to the hotels, but especially if they’re black, they’re depicted as scary and dangerous. People who overtly mock striking workers and protesting locals are ridiculed, but no interest is shown by anyone in what their demands are; they’re simply an obstacle to be gotten around in a crazy environment. At base, The Rum Diary is a story of a young guy who tries out a job in the system and gets away, having learned something, before the system gets its claws into him. It stops before his promised future gets underway at all.
The characters are reasonably interesting, though not quite enough to make up for the plodding plotting and the excessive drug hallucinations. One part out of many—say, the second fourth of the film, with the plot about the new hotel development—probably should have been expanded, and the rest dropped. But what would a Hunter S. Thompson movie be without excessive drug hallucinations? That’s the dilemma, and if your answer is, “Something I might actually want to watch,” this isn’t the movie for you. But if you’ll put up with some extraneous excess, maybe it is.