When Johnny Depp was working on Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas with Terry Gilliam for research he spend a lot of time with Hunter S. Thompson becoming fast friends, not only did Depp put in one of the best performances of his career he also found a manuscript for an as yet unpublished book called the rum diary which both Thompson and Depp agreed to be adapted to the big screen. It has been a project close to Depp’s heart and he has looked for people and financiers so that the film could be made for roughly 15 years. On top of the list for directors to front the project was Bruce Robinson, the man at the helm of Withnail & I. A film which the two icons agreed was one of the very few perfect films ever made.
Paul Kemp (a Hunter pseudonym) is a young journalist who gets a journalist job in Puerto Rico for the San Juan Star. Not for the money or the location but because he doesn’t know how to write like himself. With this, The Rum Diary is a coming of age story. There are other arcs too which include Paul falling in love with the girlfriend of a powerful but corrupt businessman who he has been employed by to write some material to aid his illegal and ethically crooked activities. The other arc echoes Fear and Loathing in that it follows two men getting thoroughly messed up, only instead of the meanest narcotics known to man its rum. To that end it’s surprisingly tame and soft centred.
That’s where the disappointment started sinking in. Not because I didn’t feel suitably filthy after it had finished, that was an incidental by-product of the rum diary’s big brothers, instead because as a comedy it fell flat on its face all too often. It would be a stretch too far to say that the film isn’t funny; nevertheless the laughs are limited.
The only funny scene is one that has been diluted incessantly by promotional campaigns and that is when the duo of Kemp and Sala (the newspaper photographer) (played with a magnificent candour by Michael Rispoli) find their wrecked car only for the front seat to be missing. It’s a simple madcap moment that didn’t fail to draw a smile which is impressive considering its familiarity. Giovanni Ribisi also plays a stormer as Moburg, a character somewhat like Hunter at his drugged peak. As many missed opportunities as they are, there is generally something here or there that will make you laugh or at the very least smile in acknowledgement.
The most problematic issues centre on the script and Johnny Depp. Robinson has openly stated that he kept two lines from the book and they are both of no consequence. On the positive side he has crafted one of Hunter’s weaker novels into something with a cogent narrative, but he has also included many speeches that sound like Hunter before he was Hunter. It’s somewhat of a plot hole, yet being a fan of the man’s novels hearing monologues in a similar vernacular is always a pleasure.
The other issue is the casting as Johnny Depp as Kemp, a man in his mid-20’s. I don’t care how good-looking Depp is for a man of 48, he cannot carry off the age gap. That isn’t to say he is bad in this role, he captures a young man finding his way and showing moments and flourishes of the manic indignation that would define him as a person later in life. His familiarity as a huge star brought the truth of the role into debate and question.
Without a vested interested, the rum diary will fall deaf what with its lack of traditionally mainstream storytelling, there is no conclusion where ‘the man’ is beaten down, and Kemp doesn’t get the girl, the story just stops and moves elsewhere as the narrative strands fall to pieces around him. It lacks the closure sought by mainstream audiences.
The way in which I viewed it and got some enjoyment was as a before and after comparison. Seeing all the flourishes of Hunter appear thanks to events spiralling out of control was interesting even in the presence of a flawed film. With magnificent direction, brilliant acting and gorgeous cinematography on the one hand and a lack of direction and an excessive running time of two hours on the other means that there’s as much to praise as there is to criticise. The passion is there without doubt, the end product is more questionable. Rousing one moment and lacklustre the next, this is a very hard film to recommend whether you are an ardent fan or something much more casual.