Editor’s Note: The Rum Diary was released on DVD and Blu Ray eOne on February 14th. Look online for special promos to save money.
Johnny Depp works a familiar, booze-addled angle in Bruce Robinson’s The Rum Diary, a mildly amusing but muddled yarn that evaporates from the memory as rapidly as a high-proof spirit. The film is based on an early semi-autobiographical novel by Hunter S. Thompson, and casts Depp in what is essentially a muted reprise of his Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas role as stand-in for the famous gonzo journalist. The Rum Diary is also a muted reprise of sorts for Robinson, in that it sees the writer-director return to comedic material for the first time in 22 years, but fails to recapture the acerbic bite of his cult favourite ’80s efforts.
That the The Rum Diary isn’t a patch on the near-perfect Withnail & I, in particular, isn’t surprising, but it’s nonetheless a slight disappointment. Few filmmakers would seem better suited to Thompson’s material than Robinson, who, in Withnail, gave us an iconic alcoholic anti-hero, plainly kindred in spirit to Thompson’s righteously irreverent, ever-inebriated alter-ego. Both The Rum Diary and Withnail are mordant portraits of misanthropic artists as young men, but, perhaps inevitably, Robinson’s latest shares little of the youthful urgency that animated his debut.
That said, The Rum Diary is far from an outright bust,and features a formidable cast, a seductive Mad Men-era setting, and several laugh-out-loud gags…
That said, The Rum Diary is far from an outright bust, and features a formidable cast, a seductive Mad Men-era setting, and several laugh-out-loud gags, often courtesy of the show-stealingly slimy Giovanni Ribisi. As a filthy crime reporter with the pallor of a shambling corpse, Ribisi is the depraved drug fiend you expect from a Thompson adaptation, though here he’s a supporting player rather than the story’s protagonist. That honour, naturally, falls to Depp, as struggling novelist Paul Kemp, who decamps to Puerto Rico hoping to join the team at English language daily San Juan Star.
As it happens, Kemp is the only applicant, and lands the gig despite being literally soused to the eyeballs. He subsequently finds a mentor and drinking partner in the Star‘s jaded staff photographer (Michael Rispoli), but quickly discovers that Puerto Rico isn’t the paradise he anticipated; The Star is journalistically bankrupt and nearing financial foreclosure, while rampant commercial development is turning the island into a soulless, sunsplashed commodity.
Unfortunately, Robinson’s curiously low-stakes screenplay postpones most of this transformation until an awkward, extended denouement…
That threat is embodied by Aaron Eckhart’s Hal Sanderson, a moneyed real estate playboy with a stunningly attractive girlfriend (Amber Heard) and designs on a bumper beachfront development deal. Sanderson wants Kemp to put a positive spin on his shady property transactions, while Kemp desperately covets the girl, and it’s out of this dilemma that Depp’s Thompson surrogate discovers a dual passion for hallucinogens and political muckraking. Unfortunately, Robinson’s curiously low-stakes screenplay postpones most of this transformation until an awkward, extended denouement, with the result that the resolution of Kemp’s arc feels like a convenient instance of predestination, rather than the credible consequence of a moral epiphany.
Robinson himself seems less than satisfied with his film’s conclusion, and resorts to filling in the blanks with an explanatory caption. In another context, having to employ such a device would constitute a serious failing. Here, it just about suffices as a bit of hasty cleanup after some harmless fun, even if Robinson’s take on Thompson might have offered considerably more.
Compared to the US release from Sony, extras on eOne’s Canadian DVD edition of The Rum Diary are disappointingly watered-down. The US version offers two featurettes, including a 46-minute documentary that details the film’s troubled production history. Canadian buyers instead receive approximately 25 minutes of “cast and crew soundbites,” which are mainly clips from promotional interviews, featuring Depp, Eckhart, Robinson and others talking up the project. The other features are fairly shameless filler: six clips from the film and some unedited b-roll.
[notification type=”star”]60/100 ~ OKAY. The Rum Diary is a mildly amusing but muddled yarn that evaporates from the memory as rapidly as a high-proof spirit.[/notification]