The Rum Diary may not be a great film, but it is definitely a political film. This Hunter S. Thompson novel unfolds on the island of Puerto Rico in 1960 where Johnny Depp playing a thinly-veiled Thompson, by the name of Paul Kemp, awakens to the realities of the American domination of that territory. Depp, a long time friend of Thompson’s, had long agreed to do the picture despite more than a decade of setbacks.
The project meant a lot to Thompson, as it is his story of finding his own voice to rail and rage against the “bastards” and the greed of the world. In stunning Thompson fashion, one of the all time greatest business letters ever written concerns The Rum Diary and was written to a producer at The Shooting Gallery, a company notably absent from the current film production. The letter is addressed to Holly Sorenson and begins, “Okay, you lazy bitch, I’m getting tired of this waterhead fuckaround that you’re doing with The Rum Diary.”
Thompson took his own life before the film hit the big screen, and Depp made sure that the film is dedicated to his friend and mentor. The Rum Diary is a relatively small story by Hollywood standards, and it would have been quite a bit more controversial and boat rocking back in 1960. Times have changed, and perhaps modern audiences won’t find much there new or particularly fulfilling. Several class based diatribes by Thompson/Kemp/Depp are relevant today as ever, and the film sets the stage for the social conflicts that would follow. Even Tricky Dicky makes an appearance.
Still, the film appears to have been sabotaged in the marketing stage. Orders went out at ABC/Disney not to allow any promotion of the film during its release window. They wouldn’t even allow Depp to be interviewed in support of the film, by using legal pressure and obscure contract clauses against him – one of their own major stars.
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, the first Depp/Thompson collaboration also faired pretty poorly at the box office, but was a much more fun ride and visual extravaganza with Terry Gilliam directing the hell out of it. The Rum Diary is worth a watch, and has some decent laughs and a bit of social commentary, but it seems never destined to make much of a mark on the world.