AUSTIN FILM FESTIVAL 2011
By Don Simpson | October 28, 2011
Director: Bruce Robinson
Writers: Bruce Robinson, Hunter S. Thompson (novel)
Starring: Johnny Depp, Aaron Eckhart, Michael Rispoli, Amber Heard, Richard Jenkins, Giovanni Ribisi
Hunter S. Thompson was a mere 22-years old when, in 1961, he penned the novel The Rum Diary. His second novel — preceded only by the yet-to-be-published Prince Jellyfish — The Rum Diary was not published until 1998 (by no small coincidence, that is the same year Terry Gilliam’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas was released). To be perfectly honest, I have never read The Rum Diary and I suspect that could be because somewhere deep down in my subconscious, pre-LSD and/or pre-Gonzo Thompson is…well…not very appealing to me…
Not very appealing to me… That pretty much sums up my thoughts when I heard that Bruce Robinson was attached to write and direct The Rum Diary. I am still not quite sure how Withnail & I (1987) and How to Get Ahead in Advertising (1989) qualified Robinson for directing The Rum Diary; however, anyone who has seen Gilliam’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas knows that Johnny Depp can do a wicked impersonation of Thompson, especially during his tripping the lights fantastic Gonzo phase. So, I maintained some level of hope that Depp would save The Rum Diary from dire blandness; but as we are learning all too often of late, having Depp attached to a lackluster project (Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, The Tourist) cannot always save it from utter ruin.
The Rum Diary finds Thompson’s alter-ego Paul Kemp (Depp) on the wagon…albeit fleetingly. By the time Kemp shows up for his interview at an English-language daily newspaper in Puerto Rico, his eyes are blazingly bloodshot. (Note to self: Puerto Rico is one of the last places in the world an alcoholic should attempt to achieve sobriety.) The editor of the newspaper, Lotterman (Richard Jenkins), hires Kemp despite his all-too-apparent hangover. Soon, Kemp is living in a ramshackle apartment with two other staffers — Sala (Michael Rispoli) and Moburg (Giovanni Ribisi) — Kemp being the straightest arrow of the wild bunch. Kemp dutifully falls in love with Chenault (Amber Heard), who is married to Sanderson (Aaron Eckhart); Sanderson may or may not know about Kemp’s feelings for Chenault, nonetheless he recognizes a special talent in Kemp and offers to loop him in on a major real estate deal. This promptly sends Kemp’s journalistic integrity through the wringer.
Eventually, Kemp comes out of the scenario with an ignited passion to rally against government and corporate corruption; most importantly — at least for all of us fans of 1970s Thompson — his third eye is squeaked clean. So, if The Rum Diary does one thing well — and the book probably does this even better — it is to point Thompson in a specific direction for his future. Robinson emphasizes this — in a rare moment of creative genius — by utilizing the Sala and Moburg characters as precursors for what Thompson will later become. Otherwise, Robinson’s film is bland and unimaginative. In most cases this might partially be blamed on the source material; except, in Robinson’s case, I have heard rumors that he claims to have used very little of Thompson’s original prose. That right there is a colossal mistake — and egregious sin — if ever there was one.