The Rum Diary is an adaptation of an early, and reasonably autobiographical, novel by the celebrated (some might say over-celebrated) journalist, irritant of the high and mighty, and all-round substance abuser Hunter S. Thompson. It’s main, and possibly only, point of appeal to a mainstream audience is the casting of Johnny Depp as Paul Kemp, a disillusioned journalist who snags a position at a run-down English language newspaper in Puerto Rico in the early 1960s. Depp has form in this area: he previously appeared as another Thompson surrogate in Terry Gilliam’s lurid and undisciplined take on Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas and was reportedly a good friend of the original gonzo speedwriter himself (Thompson took himself out of this world via shotgun in 2005, while on the phone to his wife). That The Rum Diary got made at all is pretty much entirely down to Depp’s enthusiasm for the project, which must have been considerable as he persuaded Bruce Robinson to come out of retirement after nearly twenty years to direct it and write the screenplay. Robinson’s directorial CV is brief, but eventful: after writing and shooting the peerless Withnail & I and its overwrought follow-up How To Get Ahead In Advertising he took on the Hollywood originated Jennifer 8, on which he clashed disastrously with the studio – the film was eventually released straight to video, and Robinson chucked it all in in disgust.
The plot of this new film is kind of loose, but definitely present. Depp’s newspaperman (who’s also a failed novelist) starts off as defeated and diffident, and seemingly content to be dragged into various seamy intrigues and situations by the various colourful, depraved or corrupt characters he happens to find himself rubbing up against. There’s a flashy but dodgy PR man who wants him to sell his shady tourism enterprise, a loudmouth colleague who inveigles him into trouble with the locals and the police, a would-be drugs shaman who’s perpetually wrecked and talks with Tom Waits’s singing voice and a beautiful but unattainable girl to complicate everything further. It’s quite a talky film, but most of the dialogue is worth listening to, even if it’s seldom laugh-out-loud funny, and there are a few setpiece sequences of physical comedy and one or two quite impressively mounted car chases, involving pleasingly beaten up old bangers. There are also a few scenes showing what look like genuine cock fights – not sure what the Animal Humane Society would think.
You’d expect any kind of project based on a Hunter S. Thompson work to be a bit sprawly and ornery and challenging, and Gilliam’s film was certainly all those, although I’d maintain it’s a lot better than the surface impression you get from it might lead you to believe. The Rum Diary is however positively restrained when compared to Fear And Loathing, although inevitably a fairly large percentage of its running time is devoted to the consumption and discussion of strong alcohol, the trashing of motor vehicles and general cussing and ranting. For a start the new film seems to take place in entirely real, naturalistic even, locations and a lot of the people you see in the background look like they may be going about normal everyday business. The one occasion when the film does resort to CGI effects for the purposes of rendering a drug-induced hallucination is jarring, though admittedly also effectively squirm-inducing. It’s also a lot more coherent than Fear And Loathing, with plotlines being followed through and resolved, and Depp’s character even getting an arc in which he finds his voice as a writer. In some ways it came across to me as quite an old-fashioned film, and not just because the quality of the film stock used made it look like it was shot thirty years ago. The Rum Diary is I think destined to be a bit of a curio – too offbeat and wordy to be a hit at the box office, and not glaringly weird or gimmicky enough to garner much of a cult – and it’s a bit of a shame, though Depp deserves credit for ensuring it exists at all when he could easily be coasting his way through blockbusters all the way to retirement.