The story goes that whilst he was following (and studying) famed Gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson for his role in Fear and Loathing In Las Vegas. Johnny Depp discovered The Rum Diary manuscript written by Thompson in a box. Then, like a modern dead-sea scrolls, he persuaded Thompson to publish the story in novel form (Thompson had suggested a film version himself).Yet, Thompson found he was unable to edit the story as years of drugs, alcohol and politics had hardened him to the point that he no longer recognised himself as the young journalist that wrote The Rum Diary. Ironic that a writer, who would only hand copy in as it went to press in order to avoid editing, found he unable to change the voice of his younger self.
The Rum Diary’s plot focuses on a fictionalised Thompson. Confused young journalist Paul Kemp (Depp) arrives in Puerto Rico to start work at the failing San Juan Star. Courted by the shady property developer Sanderson (Aaron Eckhart), who employs him to write favourably for his latest controversial project, Kemp falls for Sanderson’s trophy girlfriend Chenault (Amber Heard). Will he take the money, the girl, or moral high ground?
Before he was the drug-riddled genius of Fear and Loathing In Las Vegas, Hunter S. Thompson was a young lost writer struggling to find his voice. The Rum Diary was his way of learning “to write like myself.” He attempts to explain how the ire grew inside him and set out on his mission to stop the “Bastards” – with a little LSD sprinkling for taste.
With Depp tempting Withnail and I’s Bruce Robinson out of self-imposed directorial exile the anticipation of Thompson fans has been rabid, but any hopes of recreating Gilliam’s abstract masterpiece should be dispelled immediately. Rather than slanted camera angles and kaleidoscopic colours, we have 30mm film and a nostalgic look at a by-gone political era. The fuzziness doesn’t come from the protagonist’s drug meddling, it comes from a director using old techniques.
Robinson readily admits, “I can’t write like Hunter, I can only write like myself,” and it shows. Whereas, Fear and Loathing was punctuated by Depp’s Hunter-esque drawl clarifying the inexplicable scenes of degradation, The Rum Diary only contains two lines of original Thompson prose. Robinson does have an impressive ear for the tone but the vitriol and bile never quite leaps from his typewriter like it did from Thompson’s.
The Rum Diary is a disappointingly conventional coming-of-age story which is drenched in Puerto-Rican sunshine rather than the bleakness of Withnail and I. The comedy is broad but effective and glimpses of Withnail’s character have melded into the escapades of Depp’s Kemp. Robinson’s mastery of physical comedy is a quintessentially British sitcom influence in an otherwise pure Americana of a film.
Surprisingly Johnny Depp’s performance is understated, smooth and a world away from the caricature’s he is famed for playing in the past. Rather than the funhouse mirror version of Thompson we see an earnest, frustrated handsome young man. Every ounce as curious to explore his inner limits, through early dalliances with LSD, as he is with ousting the utopian fantasy Sanderson had created in Puerto Rico.
The spirit of The Rum Diary may be summed up by the casting of Amber Heard. Undoubtedly beautiful, she resembles a more conventional looking Scarlett Johansson and plays the under developed femme fatale character Chenault, unfortunately she exits the plot with a shrug rather than a tear. Yet, she is involved in The Rum Diary’s best scene. Whereas the novel depicts a graphic rape scene, Robinson masterfully omits it from the screen play. Post-Irreversible films have tended to become increasingly graphic and sexually violent. Instead Robinson builds an intense sweaty atmosphere inside a Puerto Rican club. The sexual tension switches from erotically charged to aggressive in an instant and when Kemp, Sanderson and Chenault realise, it’s too late: Cut to beach early morning.
Like an old friend with a new haircut, The Rum Diary is initially intriguing yet disappointingly familiar. There a few nostalgic tastes of Robinson’s talent and humour but nothing that warrants repeat viewings. Perhaps the weight of Thompson’s prose or Gilliam’s wackiness handicaps The Rum Diary unfairly, but with Thompson being missed in both person and spirit, it sure is nice to have him back for a little while. Nice but not amazing.