The Rum Diary – Review
Legend has it that a young Hunter S. Thompson once typed F. Scott Fitzgerald‘s The Great Gatsby and Earnest Hemingway‘s A Farewell To Arms in their entirety, in an attempt to get inside the mind of a great writer. The spirit of this eager, driven journalist who would become the father of gonzo is evoked in the latest film adaptation of Thompson’s work.
Synopsis: The Rum Diary, based on Thompson’s novel of the same name, follows Paul Kemp (Johnny Depp), an American journalist who has newly arrived in Peurto Rico. Teaming up with photographer Bob Sala (Micheal Rispoli), Kemp begins a rum-addled investigation of Peurto Rican culture. In the process Kemp gets caught up with smooth talking entrepreneur Sanderson (Aaron Echkart), and obsesses over his fiance Chenault (Amber Heard), letting his ‘job’ at the struggling local newspaper The San Juan Star hang by a thread.
The performances in The Rum Diary are spot on, and the dynamic between Depp and Rispoli is perfect. Eckhart is as suave and handsome as he needs to be and Amber Heard as the gorgeous ‘mermaid’ ticks all the boxes, while Giovani Ribisi is a hilarious standout as the swaying, tormented drunkard Moberg. As a series of portraits of 1950s Peurto Rico The Rum Diary is a success, but it fails to do much more than that.
Comparisons to Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas are obvious, and necessary as The Rum Diary serves as a sort of prequel to Fear and Loathing (both are highly autobiographical). Paul Kemp is Thompson’s cleaner, fresh-faced main character, whose heavy drinking and drug experimentation would lead to the bat-dodging hijinks of Fear and Loathing‘s antihero Raoul Duke.
This film marks the third attempt to bring The Rum Diary to the big screen. In 2000, Johnny Depp was signed as executive producer and the starring role. In 2002, Benicio Del Toro (Hunter S. Thompson’s wild offsider in Fear and Loathing) and Josh Hartnett were set to play the adventurous writer/photographer duo.
Both attempts failed to impress Thompson, leading at one point to an obscenity-ridden letter deeming the process a “waterhead fuckaround.”
It wasn’t until 2007, two years after the author’s death, that producer Graham King got the rights to the novel and started a film adaptation with Warner Independent Pictures.
It’s a shame that this film was made without the author’s blessing, but maybe it’s a good thing that Hunter S. Thompson isn’t around to witness its failure to capture his spark.
After the two failed attempts, and the cult success of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, The Rum Diary was one of this 2011/2012′s most anticipated films. It was written for the screen and directed by Withnail & I‘s Bruce Robinson, so it came with a promising pedigree.
But this is Robinson’s first directorial venture in 19 years, and is missing his characteristic originality. Terry Gilliam was responsible for the outrageously twisted Fear and Loathing trip which, in true gonzo spirit, jumped into the crazy Vegas world and let you follow Thompson’s every dizzy, disorienting turn.
All of the elements are there in The Rum Diary: Paul Kemp’s constant drinking, drug experimentation, hilarious mishaps, Depp’s charmingly confused swagger (which is authentically modelled on Hunter S. Thompson’s own, as the two were known to be close and lived together for a time), and drawling murmurings over the tapping of a typewriter.
But Robinson is almost clinical in his approach. Thanks to cinematographer Dariusz Wolski, there’s a unsatisfying Hollywood sheen given to the setting of Peutro Rico. No doubt the story was toned down to give the film wider commercial appeal, leaving the film to be a formulaic and lack luster piece that fails to capture the spirit of what is was originally a thrilling and provocative tale.
Nonetheless, The Rum Diary is still full of funny moments, and worth watching for the physical comedy as well as Thompson’s insightful witticisms. But this film fails to add anything to Thompson’s memoir and falls disappointingly flat in a lot of departments.
Released: March 15, 2012 (AUS)
Directed by: Bruce Robinson
Starring: Johnny Depp, Michael Rispoli, Aaron Eckhart, Amber Heard, Richard Jenkins and Giovanni Ribisi.