On paper, The Rum Diary sounds like a sure-fire winner, but in practice it’s slightly more problematic than that. The film sees Johnny Depp returning to the work of Hunter S. Thompson and again playing the kind of Thompson alter-ego that he did so well in Fear & Loathing In Las Vegas. Depp has been intimately involved with the movie, to the point where he was the one who told Thompson to publish it, as the writer had stuffed it in a drawer since the early 60s and never let anyone see it. Depp and Thompson were casting around for something else they could film after Fear & Loathing, and came across The Rum Diary, which was duly published and is Hunter’s only proper novel.
It’s taken rather longer than originally envisaged to get it to the screen, with various financing deals emerging and disappearing until it finally went it front of the camera a decade after it was originally supposed to. This in itself becomes an issue because while it’s Depp’s love letter to his friend and was only going to get made with him in the lead, he’s too old really to play the lead character. It’s a story of a lost young man looking for direction and finding anything but. That would have worked for Depp a few year ago, but he’s now 48. He has great fun in the role and is certainly watchable, but he’s just a bit too old for a tale that’s so invested in the excesses of youth.
Depp plays a journalist called Paul Kemp who arrives in Puerto Rico with the hopes of reporting for The San Juan Star. The paper’s circulation is dropping and editor-in-chief, Edward Lotterman (Richard Jenkins), say’s he’s had way too many employees come and go with “a lack of commitment and too much self-indulgence.” People don’t want the job as much as the Puerto Rican life and the escape from humdrum reality they think comes with it.
However Lotterman reckons Kemp has the enthusiasm he’s looking for and so Paul sets out to explore the region (I do love the idea you get from Thompson that in the past editor’s just let journalists go off and do whatever they hell they wanted, although I’m certain it was never quite how he paints it). Kemp ends up finding a possible story in wealthy American entrepreneur Sanderson (Aaron Eckhart), who is hoping to pull off a land development scam. However a complication arises in the form of Sanderson’s attractive fiancée, Chenault (Amber Heard).
There’s plenty more that happens in the movie but the problem is that so little of it really leads anywhere. Kemp’s given a drink and drug problem but nothing really comes of that – although he undoubtedly drinks a lot, takes a fair amount of drugs and smokes endlessly. The script delves into satire and politics (it almost but never fully becomes an anti-authoritarian rant), but none of it goes anywhere – even the over-arching theme of escape is never given much more than a surface gloss.
Part of the problem is Kemp himself, a character it’s difficult to care about as he never really comes to life. He’s a spectator in the Puerto Rican world he finds himself in and while things happen to him, he never really seems part of anything, which makes it difficult to care about him. You can understand what the movie’s trying to do, but it’s tough to make it work. It’s almost a film for Hunter S. Thompson fans, who’ll already be rooting for Depp as the writer’s youthful alter-ego, but for everyone else it’s difficult to care.
Having Withnail & I director Bruce Robinson behind the camera initially seems a good move, as the sensibility of the 1987 cult Brit hit feels like it should work here. However Robinson’s only made four films and his last one was in 1992. It’s difficult not to feel when watching the movie that he’s a little out of practice and the film could have done with a steadier hand. The Rum Diary endless hints at things in its episodic wanderings, but there’s no cohesion to bring things together. Some may say that’s what Thompson always was, but he was the truth and heart of his often difficult to believe books, and that’s lacking here.
None of this is to say that The Rum Diary is bad, as it’s not. It chugs along, some things happen, Depp is fun and charming, Amber Heard is wonderful and there’s never a point where it gets boring. It’s just that when the lights come up, your immediate reaction is likely to be, ‘Is that all?’, as so little has happened that’s added up to anything. There are even some moments where it seems to be striving for greatness, but everyone’s best intentions can’t turn this rambling lark into the anarchic debauchery it wants to be.
It’s a movie lacking in vision. Or at least it’s a movie trapped between visions, with Robinson most of the time going for a surprisingly straightforward narrative style, before throwing in moments of Fear & Loathing style energy and strangeness (including some drug-induced hallucinations). Indeed it’s almost as if Bruce periodically remembers he wanted to make this movie because of Gilliam’s wonderful take on Thompson’s work, but most of the time he’s simply trying to hold things together and tell the non-story story he’s got to work with. He obviously wants to make something that truly captures Thompson, but he just misses.
As mentioned though, it’s not a bad film, it’s just difficult not to feel disappointed that its meandering nature never amounts to much, resulting in something that feels like a missed opportunity. Everyone’s heart is in the right place, but as so often with projects that are made as a tribute or homage – in this case to Hunter S Thompson – everyone is so close to the subject that they narrowly miss what made it special in the first place.
Overall Verdict: Never boring and Depp is fun, but The Rum Diary reaches all over the place but finds little to hand on to.
Reviewer: Jake Davis