The Rum Diary
If you know me at all then you’re probably aware that Bruce Robinson’s 1987 cult British comedy “Withnail and I” is my favorite film of all-time. Featuring brilliant performances and some of the funniest and best dialogue ever written it demonstrates that plot is not essential to making a great film. Unfortunately for Robinson making it proved emotionally and financially taxing and when he made his first Hollywood film 5 years later (“Jennifer 8”) the experience was so unbearable for him that he left filmmaking completely. Now, 19 years later he’s back with material that sounds perfectly suited for him, an adaptation of a Hunter S. Thompson novel.
It’s 1960 and Thompson’s alter ego, Paul Kemp (Johnny Depp) is an aspiring novelist going to Puerto Rico to make his first foray into journalism. There’s civil unrest just outside the doors of the San Juan Star but the paper’s top man, Lotterman (Richard Jenkins) wants to keep the focus on what makes tourists feel good about the island. The paper’s advertising revenue and thus its very existence depends on it. “There’s an ocean of money out there,” says Hal Sanderson (Aaron Eckhart), one of the Star’s main benefactors. Sanderson hopes that he can convince Kemp to write a series of articles that will portray his business interests in a positive light and help pave the way for further hotel expansion. Kemp learns quickly how devastating this would be to the local population and finds himself in the middle of a sticky ethical situation. Matters are complicated further when he meets Sanderson’s young girlfriend Chenault (Amber Heard).
In 1998 Depp played Thompson (this time called Raoul Duke) in “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas .” Like “Withnail,” “Fear and Loathing” was content to meander along with its characters with little plot but a great story being told subtly beneath the surface. “The Rum Diary” however seems to want to meander one minute and push its plot ahead the next. It’s one thing for the film’s central character to feel confused and muddled, especially at this point in his life. It’s a problem though when the film itself is.
The movie works best when its focus is on Kemp’s life in squalor. Fellow journalist Bob Sala (Michael Rispoli, who gives the film’s best performance) welcomes Kemp into his horrific apartment, which is practically spotless when compared to the flat in “Withnail.” Sharing it with them is the drug addled columnist Moberg (Giovanni Ribisi), a warning that we know that Kemp/Thompson will not heed. At this point Kemp is merely a budding alcoholic, nowhere near the level of drug abuser that he would become. The scenes of domestic insanity are the closest “The Rum Diary” ever comes to really hitting its stride. Even these scenes however just seem to come up a bit short. It’s as though Robinson needed to write one or even two more drafts of the screenplay to really make the movie come alive.
“The Rum Diary” not only portrays its protagonist in a state of becoming as a drinker/druggy, it also shows him still looking for his voice as a writer. This could have been an incredibly fascinating examination of how Thompson became Thompson but like virtually every other element of this movie it goes largely unexplored. This element also highlights two of the film’s most glaring faults. Thompson and Robinson each have distinct and powerful voices but neither of them comes across here. It doesn’t feel as though they’re fighting with each other to create white noise, it’s as though they’re both lost. The second problem is Depp. It’s not that it’s a bad performance. It’s that the character should have been played by an actor half his age. When Depp portrayed Thompson 13 years ago it was for a film set in 1971. Now he’s playing the character when he was 11 years younger. It’s difficult to believe a man in his mid to late 40s (even Depp who looks young for his age) playing an aspiring writer who’s just starting out in the world. But being that Depp (a well known friend of Thompson) was the driving force in getting the film made and that he hand picked Robinson to helm it, who was going to tell him he wasn’t right for the part anymore? He was exceptional in “Fear and Loathing.” Genuinely Oscar worthy. And in his mid-thirties he was the right age to be “Fear and Loathing” Thompson. But that was 1998.
Robinson meanwhile shows his handle on the early sixties is nowhere near as strong on his handle of the end of it. Obviously I wasn’t there but I always got the sense that “Withnail” captured the reality of the late sixties better than any other film I’ve seen because it uses the period as a backdrop for a deeply personal story. By not being about 1969 it is absolutely about 1969.
For fans of everyone involved "The Rum Diary" is sadly a disappointment. 5/10.