The Rum Diary

Dir. Bruce Robinson

2011

Bruce Robinson, director of The Rum Diary, explained how converting the script of this Hunter S. Thompson biopic required him to fall off the wagon and resume drinking heavily. Not generally the best course of action for creating an engrossing film, this admission may go some way to explaining the dreadful spectacle that was to unfold. One can’t help think that, on viewing the final product, a drink or two might have eased the pain.

Johnny Depp is Paul Kemp, thinly disguised fledgling Hunter S. Thompson of real life gonzo journalistic fame. He’s an amateur journalist and professional bar hop who’s looking for literary acceptance at the bottom of every spirit glass he can get his hands on. Finding himself working for a rag newspaper in poverty stricken 1960s Puerto Rico, Kemp is soon dredged up by white suited guardian angel Sanderson (played by Aaron Eckhart) who promises him a yacht ride to the good life. However, in a point of no return, the young journo has to choose between the bloated American Dream and the bitter reality of social injustice which it chooses to ignore.

The attention to detail gone to by the prop staff is astounding; the Cold War era locations are characters in themselves, you find yourself wanting to finely inspect every antiquated cash register and polish every chrome bumper in sight. The style, however, lacks substance to match.

At times I wondered whether Depp’s love interest was intended to be Amber Heard’s Chennault or his character’s own classic sunglasses; the latter being both better looking and far more dramatically engrossing. Aaron Eckhart plays a rich, smooth talking douchebag; but he’s played better rich, smooth talking douchebags in the past. Giovanni Ribisi, furthermore, overacts so hard you feel he might burst into flames; and at one point he sort of does.

More disastrously, the film comes across as pointless. Johnny Depp, a close personal friend of the late Hunter S. and obvious head honcho of the production, clearly feels this is a story that must be told; the origins of the greatest unfettered badass of journalism. However, next to nothing in this film is faithful to the original book The Rum Diary or of any records we have of the writer’s experiences. The movie itself feels loosely tethered to reality, with Depp simply muddying the waters of his own idol’s legacy. So, I ask, what’s the point? The ending is a corny, contrived deification of a man Johnny Depp loved, and you can’t help but wish he had shown us the facts and let us decide for ourselves.

Awkwardly, this film can’t escape the grip of the 1998 Johnny Depp/Terry Gilliam collaboration Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. The Fear and Loathing Hunter S. Thompson was a living, breathing drug and Rum Diary struggles to characterise him without narcotics. Depp should have rejuvenated Hunter as naïve and conflicted but instead bumbles around, uncharismatic and hung over, in a muted version of his previous performance. The story tries to go more Terry Gilliam with an awkwardly slotted hallucination scene, but this both wildly contradicts Thompson’s actual experiences (he actually started tripping much later, whilst riding with the Hell’s Angels) and fails to live up to the terrifying, hilarious and delightful cinematic exploits of Hunter the older in Fear and Loathing. The Rum Diary never shakes off these shackles to become its own.

Films about alcoholics, similar to real life benders, draw a fine line between being enjoyably riotous booze ups and melancholic picklings where nobody wants to talk to you because you stink of beer and don’t make any sense. It’s a shame that Robinson, director of Withnail and I (perhaps the greatest drinking film of all time), has come out with a film that is so much in the latter category. If you’re looking for the real Hunter S. Thompson; go out tonight, drink tequila till you don’t know who you are, snort cocaine off a chimp’s back and tab as much acid as it takes for you to talk to God. Alternatively rent Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, it’s probably safer.

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