The Rum Diary, 2011.
Written and Directed by Bruce Robinson.
Starring Johnny Depp, Giovanni Ribisi, Aaron Eckhart, Amber Heard, Michael Rispoli and Richard Jenkins.
It’s the late 1950s and American novelist and journalist Paul Kemp (Johnny Depp) – a.k.a Hunter S. Thompson – takes on a freelance job at a Puerto Rican local newspaper. Island culture clashes with greedy American expats as he must overcome his struggle to find his own authorial voice.
As a massive fan of the cult hit Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, the prospect of Johnny Depp inhabiting Hunter S. Thompson again had me very excited about this project. However, after the relatively poor critical and box office reception, there’s been a negative buzz that’s been reverberating online since the release of The Rum Diary. I’ve been mostly ignoring the negativity because of one really glaring fact – it’s nigh on impossible to live up to preposterous cinematic acid trip of Fear and Loathing at this point – it’s like addicts say, we’re doomed to be chasing the dragon of that wonderful first high in any film that follows. But unfortunately, for me that bad buzz is totally warranted.
I suppose the fatal flaw of The Rum Diary is that although it’s another Hunter S. Thompson story – and Depp is the natural fit for the man – its meant to the beginnings of the icon, attempting to find his voice. It’s an origin story of a lost writer, desperate and impressionable, who’s being affected and shaped by this series of events. Depp’s presence is far too assured in the boots of what’s meant to be the young Kemp / Thompson to convince that he’s unsure of himself. Depp’s a character actor who, in a serious dramatic role, conveys an effortless complexity that simply doesn’t fit in the film. However, I am a fan of Depp and I really enjoyed seeing him in a more serious role, especially glimpses of the outrageousness to come in Thompson that’s he’s able to call on instantly because it’s his second portrayal of the man he loved and admired.
Writer-director Bruce Robinson creates an aesthetically beautiful film with great production design. The colours pop from the screen. The often dull and demure late 50s and early 60s kitsch architecture and dress is contrasted by the natural beauty of the landscape. Robinson felt similar to Alfred Hitchcock in his coverage of Amber Heard. The camera feels as if she’s the only one in the frame when she’s on the screen. Robinson attempts to elicit a cinematic infatuation with her that the characters who come in contact with her. Unfortunately, despite her inarguable beauty, I felt that she was a Hollywood party girl in the 50s and I found her frustratingly empty.
Despite its length, the film rushed introductions to characters and held far too long with an infatuated gaze on the sublime beauty of the natural landscape or interludes that seem to do nothing to progress the story. Aaron Eckhart’s former journalist turned PR man is clearly an opportunist with sinister greedy intentions but it seems strange that he’d immediately proposition Kemp to positively spin his illegal activities when his very deep pockets could poach much more established writing talent. Giovanni Ribisi is a perennially underused character-acting talent who’s a kind of dark potential future Kemp, ignoring his journalistic pursuits and the necessary confrontation of the profession for the activities to numb his existence.
The Rum Diary looks good and had glimpses of potential – like the early novel of the late great Hunter S. Thompson. Unfortunately, those glimpses feel like they’re padded with a sprawling, superficial, sporadic story that fails to live up the expectations of its inspiration, its star and the previous cinematic incarnations of the man.
Flickering Myth Rating: Film * / Movie **