Wednesday, 7 December 2011

The Rum Diary (2011)

 Johnny’s round.

Image: GK Films

Johnny Depp’s friendship with Hunter S. Thompson has had a big influence on the actor’s career. Watching his turn as Captain Jack Sparrow, it’s impossible not to see the late gonzo journalist jostling with the more obvious Keith Richards impression in his performance. Depp’s been committed to getting this, Thompson’s only novel, onto the big screen for years.

Paul Kemp (Depp) is a hard-drinking failed novelist who arrives in Puerto Rico in the 1950s to write for an American newspaper. Will he be swayed by the oily crooks like Sanderson (Aaron Eckhart) who want to exploit the island’s beauty for profit or will he finally uncover his voice and speak the truth as a journalist?

It’s a relief that The Rum Diary doesn’t try too hard to align itself with Terry Gilliam’s film Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Yes, there’s drinking, drugs, hallucinations, and overweight American tourists, but there’s a story here. Admittedly, it’s not much of a story, but as it moves along it becomes clear that the film is also meant to serve as an almost-prequel to an as-yet unmade Thompson biopic. As Kemp realises he can channel his hatred for “bastards” into his writing, his mission is unmistakeably Thompson’s.

Depp also managed to convince Bruce Robinson to direct. The Withnail and I filmmaker hasn’t made a feature since 1992’s unloved crime drama Jennifer 8 but he does a good job of wrangling the meandering story into some kind of shape. The details of the corruption sub-plot never seem particularly important to the filmmakers. They’re more concerned with lining up these seemingly unassailable forces that Thompson would fight against from the 60s onwards. So we have Sanderson, with his plans to desecrate untouched paradise, Kemp’s editor Lotterman (Richard Jenkins), with his spineless bowing to corporate pressure, and finally TV footage of Nixon himself.

Depp underplays Kemp, which works well when reacting to the madness surrounding him, but doesn’t really create a particularly rounded character. Michael Rispoli (Kick-Ass) does excellent work with a rare meaty role as Kemp’s equally hard-drinking, loyal photographer Sala, Eckhart does tightly-wound and slimy, Amber Heard (Drive Angry) is well-cast as Sanderson’s flirtatious, alluring girlfriend, and Jenkins (Let Me In) has fun as the toupée-sporting editor. Finally there’s an entertainingly unhinged turn from Giovanni Ribisi (Public Enemies) as an unhinged, Hitler-loving reporter. 

At two hours, The Rum Diary stretches itself a little thin. It’s always enjoyable and there are some fantastically funny sequences, most often when Depp and Rispoli are on screen, but in trying to balance Kemp’s growing outrage with greed and corruption with the more out-there comedic scenes it can’t quite land on a tone. However, it’s about the experience more than it is about the specifics of the story, as evidenced by the cheeky postscript.

Verdict: Often very funny and with some committed performances, The Rum Diary doesn’t quite intoxicate like it should but it’s an enjoyable love-letter to the King of Gonzo.

3.5/5

JH

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