17 November 2011


Even in the process of actively trying to avoid comparisons of The Rum Diary to Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, it feels like my feelings about the movie can only be articulated in relation to my similar disaffection with Terry Gilliam's film. It still seems like a reasonable comparison to make, as this film and Fear and Loathing would make a serviceable double bill, with each film featuring Johnny Depp performing as an alias of Hunter S. Thompson.

The Rum Diary, based on one of Thompson's early, originally unpublished books, essentially serves as Hunter S. Thompson Begins, in the parlance of the mainstream cinema with which it is more obviously trying to blend in. Depp plays Paul Kemp, a novelist who's struggling to find his voice at the height of Eisenhower's America. Puerto Rico is a big enough change of scene, and the local rag, The San Juan Star, signs him up as a reporter. But the assignments don't exactly grab him, and his increasing dependency on alcohol gets him into trouble, especially when the beguiling Chenault enters the equation.

You don't need to look into the production history of this one to tell that it's something of a vanity project. It feels like the first film he's made in a while that wasn't calculated and constructed to cash in on his worldwide stardom. There's something satisfying about the idea that this is gonna be a good film because he's doing it for the love of it, not the money. Sadly, that doesn't bear out. On the plus side, it should be said that as a prequel of sorts, a 48-year-old Depp playing a 20-something Kemp shouldn't work as well as it does, especially having playing the older character of Raoul Duke, when he was 35.

But oddly, his return to a Thompson-esque character seems bereft of a certain something, as young as he appears. Although he holds his own against an entirely too sexy performance by Amber Heard, the two don't really have much chemistry, because neither has much of a personality to share with the other. But it's not a bad performance, and the rest of the cast are up to their respective mantles too. Richard Jenkins is particularly enjoyable as Kemp's editor, and Michael Rispoli forms the largest distinguishing presence from the earlier Thompson film, as Kemp's colleague and friend, Bob Sala. He's a world away from Benicio del Toro's Dr. Gonzo, a vacancy that is more or less inhabited by Giovanni Ribisi's Moberg.

But really, the scorching hotness of Heard as Chenault really shows up the big contrast, as most of the film left me cold. I've said that any review of this film should also mention Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, and I stand by that. Although I understand Fear and Loathing's discombobulating structure makes it a perfect adaptation of that novel, its appeal has always gone over my head, in many ways. Likewise, The Rum Diary kind of washed over me, even though I completely understood it at all times, but I definitely feel like it's the lesser of the two films- somehow more commercially concerned, despite the fact that it was obviously a struggle to get the book onto the screen than say, The Hangover Part II.

Bruce Robinson, best known for Withnail & I, is the writer and director behind the latter film, and here's what I've always noticed about Withnail and Fear and Loathing. I have a friend who's a big fan of both films, and introduced me and the rest of our friends to them a few years back. It seemed like those who didn't get Withnail, loved Fear and Loathing and those who were left cold by Fear and Loathing, dug Withnail. All of which is to say that The Rum Diary, as a combination of source material from Thompson and the creative drive of Robinson, left me more uncertain as to whom I should recommend it, than any other film I've seen in recent memory.

The Rum Diary has plenty of madcap comedy, but despite all the effort that's gone into it, it felt oddly dispassionate to me. As a big fan of Withnail & I, I was disappointed that Bruce Robinson's script only gave me one big belly laugh, with a brilliant one-liner that almost made it all worthwhile. It feels divisive by nature, which I suppose would be in keeping with the general subversive tone of Thompson's works. When a film leaves me this perplexed, I can't help but compare with what I already know- Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas left me perplexed too, but also more impressed than I was by the end of this one.

The Rum Diary is now showing in cinemas nationwide.
If you've seen The Rum Diary, why not share your comments below?

I'm Mark the mad prophet, and until next time, don't watch anything I wouldn't watch.

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