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Review - The Rum Diary

18 Nov 2011
Johnny Depp pulls out his Hunter S. Thompson routine again for this semi-autobiographical comedy from the director of Withnail and I. Sounds good, doesn't it...
Puerto Rico, 1960. Journalist Paul Kemp (Depp) arrives to take up a position at the beleaguered San Juan Star and falls into a rabbit hole of alcoholism and lust as he tries to find his voice while avoiding the demands of hackneyed writing and the advances of capitalism.

The Rum Diary is based on a partly autobiographical novel written by famed gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson in the 60’s, shortly after his own time spent at a newspaper in Puerto Rico. The film makes the connections between Thompson and protagonist Kemp more explicit in a number of ways, be referring to the future work of the writer and, most explicitly, in the central casting.

Depp isn’t new to the work of Thompson, having previously starred as author analogue Raoul Duke in 1998’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas in addition to commenting in documentaries about the man and counting himself as a personal friend of the author, who committed suicide in 2005. Here, he gets to play a more fresh faced version of Thompson, younger and not yet fuelled by the drugs which powered his real life counter parts writings and it makes for a more accessible, if endlessly quirky character.

While Depp pulls out one idiosyncrasy after another in his portrayal of Kemp, the rest of the characters are either limp (like Amber Heard’s vapid sex symbol) or insufferable – Giovanni Ribisi conjures up a hoarse, filthy tramp who earns plenty of screen time but no laughs or empathy. Only Richard Jenkins manages to be entertaining, complete with an openly ridiculous wig.

While the films errs closest to a comedy in its aspirations, complete with broad, almost clownish beats, the effect is neutered by a number of factors. Firstly, the main plot essentially concerns a group of evil property developers, led by the ever-grinning Aaron Eckhart, who want Kemp to write pamphlets to create good publicity as they set out to build a hotel on an island paradise. It’s yawn-inducing on paper and it’s no better on screen, providing little drama and no significant moments worthy of Depp’s characterisation. And that problem is exacerbated by the brain-numbing running time which stretches a simple plot to a bloated two hours.

Director Bruce Robinson has been searching for a hit since cult success Withnail and I way back in 1987 and he won’t find it here, especially as he seems to be spending most of his time detailing how the plot drove him back to drink after years of sobriety. He’s also scribbled the adaptation which crams as many Thompson-esque bon mots as it can into every scene but lacks the sense these gems stick. Pirates of the Carribbean lenser Dariusz Wolski knows how to shoot the tropics by now and the production design is above average.

The Rum Diary purports to be a passage in the early life of a writer, detailing part of the process which helped him find his voice, the rage which was write large across the landscape of 20th century journalism. But the film itself is too light, focussing on comedy, a dull plot and cursory glimpse of the dark underpinnings of Thompson. Depp fans may still get a kick out of the histrionics but there’s little else to see here.