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The Rum Diary

The Rum Diary

By Ben Nicholson • March 7th, 2012
Static Mass Rating: 2/5
Dogwoof Digital

Release date: March 5th, 2012
Certificate (UK): 15
Running time: 120 minutes

Director: Bruce Robinson
Writers: Bruce Robinson, Hunter S. Thompson (novel)

Cast: Johnny Depp, Giovanni Ribisi, Amber Heard, Aaron Eckhart

A couple of years ago I happened to watch Alex Gibney’s fascinating documentary Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson and I quickly searched out Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas to read.

Following that I read his account of the famous biker gang in Hell’s Angels and I finally got around to watching the film adaptation of Fear and Loathing… and thoroughly enjoyed Terry Gilliam and Johnny Depp’s trip.

It wasn’t a major surprise when Depp, who also appeared on Gonzo and seems to have absolutely nailed Thompson’s voice, was on board to produce and star in the adaptation of his late friend’s autobiographical novel The Rum Diary.

The Rum Diary

What was a surprise was to hear that Bruce Robinson would be in the director’s chair for the first time in over 15 years and over 20 after his cult debut, the equally alcoholic, Withnail & I. Robinson came out of his teetotal directorial requirement after being badgered by Depp to write the screenplay and once he’d finished badgered again to direct it.

The story sees Paul Kemp (Depp) wake up with bloodshot eyes and a stinking hangover in a trashed hotel room in Puerto Rico in 1960. We soon learn that Kemp is a writer and is there to work for a failing local newspaper run by the tired and cynical Lotterman (Richard Jenkins) and staffed by a selection of oddballs like photographer Sala (Michael Rispoli) and drunken Nazi religious correspondent Moberg (Giovanni Ribisi).

Kemp, who has a considerable weakness for booze himself, seems keen to expose corruption but soon gets tangled up with the corrupt after he takes a shine to the beautiful Chenault (Amber Heard), who just happens to be the girlfriend of the wealthy and powerful Sanderson (Aaron Eckhart) who needs a scribe to write the PR that will let he and his cohorts despoil a beautiful island paradise with hotels.

The film has clearly been made with a lot of love and the performances are all on the money even if the peripheral characters don’t really get the chance to be as funny as they seem to have the potential to be. Depp leads the pack well and his mannerisms (veering from Edward D Wood Jnr to Captain Jack) do provide some comic relief to scenes that otherwise lack it.

The Rum Diary

That brings me to my main problem with The Rum Diary; it isn’t funny enough. Sold pretty strongly as a comedy and with ‘the man who played Jack Sparrow’ directed by ‘the man who made Withnail & I’ in a story by the ‘the man who wrote Fear and Loathing…’ I just expected a lot more laughs and perhaps more drunken antics.

There are a vast number of scenes that are played for laughs or include moments of genuine humour while Johnny Depp, even playing largely straight, still has enough in his locker to make you crack a smile. Despite some well placed surreal sequences (a manic car-chase, a scene where Paul and Sala get extremely high) though it just doesn’t quite work. There was more than one moment where I was watching the film and was aware that objectively, what was happening on the screen should be making me smile at least, but it didn’t. Of course, with all comedy, it comes down to taste so there will undoubtedly be people rolling in the isles watching this but this just didn’t hit the spot for me.

The Rum Diary

Now, what this comes down to, in my opinion, is the desire to keep the film amusing (which it is) whilst primarily looking at Paul becoming the journalist that he needs to be. That’s all well and good for a serious film, or even a comedy-drama but what is key in this scenario is that the dramatic story works.

Unfortunately, for The Rum Diary, Paul’s journey didn’t feel genuine to me at all – there needed to be more corruption or more at stake but in the end, his supposedly heroic final stand against the corruption falls completely flat.

If the central characters story isn’t compelling, what chance has the film got of really engaging its audience? There is also the issue that this raises of the tone veering wildly and so we have scenes that seem like they’re from completely different movies; on one hand we have Paul taking pictures of starving children in the slum, on the other he is hilariously sat on Sala’s lap to allow him to drive their wrecked car and escape from a vengeful police officer.

The film has clearly been made with a lot of care as a love-letter to Thompson himself and it is a surprise to learn that hardly any of the dialogue is taken from the book as it all sounds just like him (bravo Bruce Robinson) but it ultimately fails either to work as a dramatic journey for Paul Kemp or as an out-and-out comedy; thus it is likely to be one of Thompson and Depp’s more forgettable screen outings.

Ben Nicholson

Ben Nicholson

Ben has had a keen love of moving images since his childhood but after leaving school he fell truly in love with films. His passion manifests itself in his consumption of movies (watching films from all around the globe and from any period of the medium’s history with equal gusto), the enjoyment he derives from reading, talking and writing about cinema and being behind the camera himself having completed his first co-directed short film in mid-2011.

His favourite films include things as diverse as The Third Man, In The Mood For Love, Badlands, 3 Iron, Casablanca, Ran and Grizzly Man to name but a few.

Ben has his own film site, ACHILLES AND THE TORTOISE, and you can follow him on Twitter @BRNicholson.

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