The Rum Diary is just that: a boozy, vague log of events that ramble from one to the other, depicting a frenetic chronology of people, places and cock-fighting. Though the characters can be amusing, even fascinating (witness Giovanni Ribisi’s ragtag Hitler idolater), and though Johnny Depp gives as good a Hunter S. Thompson characterization as he did in 1998’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, this film ultimately disappoints.
On a rueful note, it seems that the story of how this movie came into being is far more intriguing than the movie itself. After Depp and Thompson initially met in 1994, Thompson allowed Depp to browse through boxes of his prior writings in his basement. (At the time, Depp was researching all things HST in preparation of his portrayal of Thompson’s alter ego, Raoul Duke, for the above-mentioned Fear and Loathing.) Stumbling upon Thompson’s discarded 1959 semi-autobiographical manuscript of “The Rum Diary,” the actor and the gonzo journalist read it together. A short while later, Depp convinced Thompson to not only publish it, but that the two of them should produce an ensuing film adaptation. As for their choosing an appropriate screenwriter/director, Thompson and Depp decided that long-retired filmmaker Bruce Robinson (Withnail and I, How to Get Ahead in Advertising) would be the ideal candidate to alchemize the book into film. After Thompson’s death in 2005, Depp continued on alone. Well, not completely alone: in a symbolic nod to his departed compadre, Depp placed a vacant chair sporting Thompson’s name on the set every day. Situated next to the chair was an assortment of favorite Thompson accoutrements: a pack of Dunhill cigarettes, a cigarette holder, a highball glass filled with ice and a bottle of Chivas Regal scotch.
Perhaps if Mr. Thompson himself could have flown in from places beyond, he might have talked some sense into Depp & Co. (And, since the Chivas was just sitting there, maybe sneak a shot or two on the side. Or, if he’d seen the dailies of this film, perhaps a dozen.)
Speaking of rambling, let’s get back to the movie: The Rum Diary relates the adventures of would-be novelist Paul Kemp (Depp) attempting to get some hands-on experience as a journalist by taking on a rewrite job at a down-and-out newspaper in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Set in 1960, the island’s extreme poverty stands in direct juxtaposition to its pristine beaches and high-rise hotels. The loose story has Kemp bumping up against the assorted denizens of San Juan: the eccentric characters peopling the newsroom, the island’s smooth-talking multi-millionaires (including Aaron Eckhart, turning in a strangely shallow performance), neglected, hungry children sleeping in burned-out cars and, as expected, a beautiful girl (Amber Heard’s arresting Chenault).
Other than the jumble of frequently weightless events is the fact that both the 1959 novel and movie echo the voice of a callow 22-year-old Thompson, just on the brink of discovering his verbal power. While political and economic naïveté is plausible in a young man, the 48-year-old Depp can’t pull off the requisite shift that turns him from a lightweight boozer into a one-man army, suddenly taking on the mantel of moral indignation, “the voice of ink and rage” railing against all manner of greed and hypocrisy. As for the hoped-for revelatory choice of writer/director Robinson, the plan must have looked better on paper. Whatever energy that the filmmaker possessed 20 years ago seems to have dissipated, with Robinson delivering scenes of hollow high-jinks devoid of any true emotional urgency.
Oh hell, let’s just all have another shot of rum. Isn’t that what Thompson would do?
Rating on a scale of 5 urges to see Fear and Loathing again: 2.5
Release date: October 28, 2011
Directed by: Bruce Robinson
Screenplay by: Bruce Robinson
Based on the novel “The Rum Diary” by: Hunter S. Thompson
Cast: Johnny Depp, Aaron Eckhart, Michael Rispoli, Amber Heard, Richard Jenkins, Giovanni Ribisi
Running Time: 120 minutes