With Johnny Depp's history of chameleon acting and his dear late friend Hunter S. Thompson's machine-gun writing style, we should have had a hit on our hands with The Rum Diary. Sadly, this is not the case. Rather, we get something that borders on cute and mediocre. The whole thing is meek and needs more punch, falling flat in telling a hugely interesting and compelling story.
The uninspired plot tells of journalist Paul Kemp (Depp), who in 1960 goes to work a freelance job for a local newspaper in San Juan, Puerto Rico, that has fallen into cahoots with a sleazy planning and development scam. Mostly, though, this is a very loose collection of drug-and-alcohol-fueled mishaps as we watch Kemp struggle with corrupt business dealings, romance and heavy drinking.In reality, Thompson had unsuccessfully applied to work at the larger English-language daily while in Puerto Rico, befriending many of the writers there and providing the context for The Rum Diary's fictional storyline. It wasn't until he and Depp came upon the novel in an old box that it was published in 1998. I read the book a few years back and found it pretty engaging, with rebellious insight and tons of humor.
Thompson's lingo is peppered throughout the film, but the meandering scenes and weirdly paced timing make the lines seem like someone forced a Hunter line down someone's gullet and they regurgitate it back up with no idea of what they are saying. Diary is just snippets of easily executed scenes without going to the limit. It lacks edginess. With many promising scenes to take us over the brink, instead we just sit at the brink and say "OK, that's the brink, let's go back now." The uninspiring acid trip is a perfect example - one surreal shot, then cut to the actors walking along a street talking about being high.
I wondered who in the hell is Bruce Robinson and what right does he have to infiltrate Hunter's booze-soaked genius? Turns out this writer/director has an eclectic pair of movies under his belt; Withnail and I, which totally skewers/personifies drunkenness effectively and the weird thriller Jennifer 8, so I had hope. Sadly, all that hope has been dashed.
This unbelievably meek rendition of Diary reminded me of the Malcolm Lowry film version of Under the Volcano, which although helmed by John Huston with a great performance by Albert Finney, could not contain the literary power of the book. Diary seems to be afraid to dig deep and get to the meat of the story, opting rather to just graze the surface. Maybe the problem is that it's hard to capture the lens of such a gut-felt writer on film.
Depp's channeling of Thompson comes off as monotonous, posing and cheeky, rather than a guy with an axe to grind. Although I get the fact that this is where Thompson found his voice, making it his lifelong goal to "fight the bastards with rage and ink," it's nevertheless a wimpy homage to his legacy.
It's a testament to bad judgment that in showing us the origin of Gonzo journalism and "putting the bastards on notice" this movie chooses to play it safe. Due to Depp's lackluster performance and Robinson's risk-free approach, Diary is not simply a detour, but an all-out shortcut. I think Hunter S. should come back from the grave and tell them all how to make this movie correctly. This movie deserves it all. Too bad it's all facades and no substance. You'd be better served seeing any documentary on Thompson. At least there you can see the world through his warped fish-eye lens.
The Rum Diary
Starring Johnny Depp,
Amber Heard, Michael Rispoli,
Richard Jenkins, Giovanni Ribisi
Written for the screen and directed by Bruce Robinson