So if you aren’t a Fear and Loathing fan, The Rum Diary plays out as a mildly entertaining little movie with a few funny scenes, such as Thompson fending off a racist Puerto Rican mob. And there are some nice visuals: beaches, elegant cockfighting (hey, it’s not dogfighting—they’re just stupid chickens), and Amber Heard, a generic-looking hot blonde who throws herself at Thompson’s polite Southern courtliness.
(Thompson was enraged when William F. Buckley, the heterosexual Sebastian Flyte of the American right, observed, “Hunter Thompson has no apparent interest in sex.” But the same could be said of Twain and Kurt Vonnegut’s books.)
The Rum Diary‘s acting is indifferent, with Depp much less energetic than in his cartoonish (and not terribly funny) 1998 portrayal of Thompson. Oddly enough, the 48-year-old Depp looks plausible enough as a man half his age. Yet the delicate Depp has never been physically right for the role. Illustrator Ralph Steadman recalls Thompson as “damn near 6-foot-6 of solid bone and meat.” Tom Wolfe describes him as a Cosmo Kramer type, “one of those tall, rawboned, rangy young men with alarmingly bright eyes, who more than any other sort of human, in my experience, are prone to manic explosions.”
Nothing much has changed in Puerto Rico since Thompson’s stay fifty years ago. The feds still bribe locals to repress their natural nationalism by giving huge tax breaks to American corporations. It’s a classic minority-plutocracy gang-tackle of the American middle class, but that’s too sophisticated a concept for the movie.
If you are a Thompson aficionado, The Rum Diary‘s attempt to portray him as a humanitarian who “found his voice” in “speaking out” for the “oppressed” should strike you as sixties bosh. Baby Boomers have a sappy habit of sentimentalizing their artistic heroes as selfless idealists motivated by liberal causes. In reality, Bob Dylan destroyed lefty folk music to become a rock star, and John Lennon quickly abandoned peace-protesting for UFO-hunting.
Thompson, Dylan, and Lennon were self-absorbed and malevolent—fine haters all—but that’s what I like about them.
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