Massachusetts Daily Collegian

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A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

Massachusetts Daily Collegian

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

Massachusetts Daily Collegian

Depp plays Thompson in “The Rum Diary”

In a legacy established by 1998’s cult hit “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,” “The Rum Diary” is an attempt to channel the influential writings of author Hunter S. Thompson onto the silver screen. Thompson’s life and writing vividly mimicked each other, which led him to become a symbol of America’s counterculture during his time. Directed and written by Bruce Robinson, the film opens on a Puerto Rican beach flooded with sunshine and Paul Kemp with a very bad hangover. Johnny Depp portrays Kemp, a thinly disguised version of Thompson.

“The Rum Diary,” based on the book originally written by Thompson in 1988, has an accurate, yet tenuous relationship with its source material; sometimes the substance that Thompson gives in his only novel seems a well-crafted veneer under Robinson’s direction.

The film was shot on location in Puerto Rico, a lush and beautiful landscape on the cusp of becoming spoiled by oil refineries in the ocean and hotels and casinos along the beach. It is partially the setting that makes the film so enjoyable – against the backdrop of an Eden falling under, the viewer gets to witness Kemp and his rum get up to all sorts of debauchery.

Kemp is not alone in his rum-filled escapades. Sanderson (Aaron Eckhart) is the slick public relations man who greases the palms of many an official to ease the transition of the nation into a cosmopolitan hub, and his blonde bombshell girlfriend Chenault (Amber Heard) make things complicated for Kemp. Lotterman (Richard Jenkins) is the harried editor, and Moberg (Giovanni Ribsi) is one of a slew of perpetually drunk reporters. Johnny Depp has portrayed Thompson before in “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,” a film based off of another of Thompson’s works, so he is arguably more experienced in the art of imitating the notorious writer than any other big name actor.

Sometimes, the film focuses too much on the figure of Thompson himself, and the ferocious decadence he embodied: he personified American counterculture, but he also created an entirely new sub-genre of journalism. At the time, “New Journalism” was taking effect, which essentially suggested that journalists surrender the pretense of objectivity and inject their own experiences of events in articles that feature more prose than fact. Hunter S. Thompson’s particular brand of the new wave became known as “Gonzo Journalism,” which is a deeply personal, ferociously hallucinogenic style created in 1969, set off by Thompson’s piece “The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent and Depraved.”

Thompson ran on drugs, rum and cigarettes but inspired three generations of journalists to explore and find their own voice amidst the cold, detached journalism prevalent at the time. His literary achievements, while not as outrageous as his own personal activities, have been impressive enough to warrant more attention than they receive in the film.

His other works, which started out as pieces for Rolling Stone Magazine, include “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” (1971), an autobiographical novel that follows Raoul Duke and his attorney Dr. Gonzo as they chase the American dream through Las Vegas. “The Rum Diary,” of course, is a beautiful examination of Thompson (as Kemp) as one of America’s most influential symbols of counterculture.

The film is mostly carried by Johnny Depp’s performance of Kemp, as Depp and Thompson shared an almost spiritual friendship in the real world. Depp and Thompson bonded over the fact that they originated from Kentucky, were followers of the decadent Southern tradition, and were admirers of French symbolist poets. Depp has claimed to be Thompson’s spiritual progeny, and personally financed Thompson’s funeral, which involved Thompson’s ashes being fired from a cannon. Depp definitively captures his mentor’s spirit of rum-infused debauchery, yet manages to portray Thompson’s own peculiar style of journalism. “The Rum Diary” is ultimately a depiction of a man who can be said to have lived the phrase “life imitating art.”

Emily Kuhn can be reached at [email protected].

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