The Rum Diary is an adaptation of Hunter S Thompson’s 1959 novel (discovered in 1998 apparently by Johnny Depp himself while rooting around in Thompson’s apartment.). Depp has long been a devotee of Thompson and his fictionalised portrayal of him in Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas – a head-swimming cocktail of drugs and alcohol – is still one of the his best performances.
The Rum Diary has been pitched as a sort prequel to Fear And Loathing – an origin story for Hunter S Thompson’s distinctive style. Its excesses have been talked up relentlessly: it’s got the same director as the booze-sodden Withnail & I; the poster features the tagline “nothing in moderation” and it is after all a Hunter S Thompson novel. But it’s not the expected cavalcade of substance-induced hallucinations and trippy narrative asides that’s been advertised but instead a mild-mannered, occasionally tipsy but far from wasted tribute to the man who invented Gonzo journalism.
Like in Fear And Loathing Depp plays a fictionalised version of Thompson – Paul Kemp, a 30 year old hard-drinking novelist who winds up working in a struggling newspaper run by perpetually vexed Editor Lotterman (Richard Jenkins) in dusty Puerto Rico in the 1960s.
He shares an apartment with grizzled staff photographer Sala (Michael Rispoli) and eventually gets an offer to write favourable PR coverage for Sanderson, a crooked property developer (Aaron Eckhart) who wants to turn one of the nearby islands into a tourist trap. Adding to the complication is Sanderson’s alluring girlfriend Chenault (Amber Heard) who takes a shine to Kemp.
But Kemp is still struggling for an authorial voice. What does he want to say and how does he want to say it? This supposedly marks the genesis of Hunter S Thompson’s style, where he cultivated his rage, bile and desire to “stick it to the bastards”. Sadly, any kind of a passion or satirical invective has been lost in translation and instead we’re given a meandering, loosely connected series of incidents which lack drama, cohesion of any consistent tone.
It’s not hard to see why Depp would want to make this film. It’s an affectionate and warm tribute to a friend who influenced a great deal of his life. And it is extremely funny in places. But it lacks the bile and incisive venom that made Hunter great, as well as the direction to make any kind of significant impact. Director Bruce Robinson has sanitised the film to such an extent that it loses much of its potency.
Despite its problems, it is curiously watchable. Depp, Rispoli and Giovani Ribisi (as a boggle-eyed drunk) are at the very least entertaining. But at 120 minutes long and with no substantial plot to hang off, they start to wear out their natural likability and by the time it slopes to its limp conclusion, already feels hungover.
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