The Rum Diary is the product of hugely talented people. It’s based on a book by Hunter Thompson and stars one of Thompson’s biggest fans and acolytes Johnny Depp who also produced the film. In Bruce Robinson it has a director and screenwriter that is responsible for one of the best comedies of the past three decades, the hilariously bleak Withnail And I. This is the coolest trio since Cream broke up.
Pulling The Rum Diary out of development hell (for years studios tried to get the film off the ground) was obviously a labor of love for Depp and that may be why it doesn’t work as well as it might have. Depp’s love for Thompson could be the problem here. Love is blind… or at the very least nearsighted. Depp’s approach to Thompson is too cautious, too safe, too reverent. I think if Thompson were alive he would have instructed Depp to loosen up, too untighten his ass and go for it…gonzo-style.
The Rum Diary wants us to enter Thompson’s deliriously intoxicated world, but it’s just too damn tidy and slick for its own good. The squalor, mayhem and debauchery lacks any genuine sense of danger and the delirium is never delirious enough. And I’m definitely not buying into the film’s depiction of Thompson as some kind of romantic saint. Spinning Thompson into hero material might make for a crowd pleasing narrative but it stretches The Rum Diary into mythic places it doesn’t belong. By trying to do right by Thompson, Depp may have done him a disservice by turning one of pop culture’s biggest bad-asses into a Mr. Goody Two Shoes.
As frustrating as The Rum Diary is, there’s much to like in the film. Which is why it’s frustrating. Robinson’s direction is filled with brilliant moments - a menacing, sexually-charged scene inside a night club choreographed to scorching blues music, a visit to a hermaphrodite Voodoo priestess/priest who dispenses some powerful reptilian mojo, and a chase scene involving a decrepit Fiat, some high octane hootch and a bunch of pissed-off Puerto Ricans. Giovanni Ribisi is wonderfully deranged in a performance that channels Richard Grant from Withnail And I and there’s some brown acid weirdness that seems to have wandered in from Terry Gilliam’s Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas which, despite being recycled, is still good for a contact high.
The weakest part of the movie is supposed to be its dramatic core: a plot involving a bunch of greedy industrialists attempting an illegal land grab. But it is so undercooked and dull that the film walks away from it way before Thompson does. As a result, his character building moment, his crisis of conscience, lacks punch because most viewers won’t give a flying fuck about the whole damned thing. I suggest you forget about the particulars of the plot and just dig the atmosphere and the film’s all too rare leaps into the unknown.
When Bruce Robinson’s vision becomes disengaged from the story, dances outside the script and elbows the actors out of the way to let something organic and real in, The Rum Diary becomes as drunken as Rimbaud’s boat. My sense is that after Robinson started shooting the film with his cinematographer, the incredible Dariusz Wolski, he became increasingly engrossed with Puerto Rico’s shadow side and the mystery of the moment took over as the screenplay receded into the background.The movie finds itself in the interstices where life slips through and the audience is allowed to simply take it all in - the lysergical light, the sway of sun-sharpened silhouette, the fetid murk and tangle of tree vine, rotted root and gnarled limbs, the bristling feathers of a cockfight, the murderous intent tattooed on faces of people done wrong, the unraveling of symmetry and beautiful decay of streets and ancient buildings that stagger under the weight of forgotten crimes and deadly secrets. Within this sweetly malodorous topography lurk the kind of dark dreams that press in on a man. This is the kind of shit that writers pull inspiration from with the fervor of mad dogs digging for a hank of flesh and bone. This is where Hunter Thompson found his fucking muse. And Robinson may have as well. In these all too brief moments, The Rum Diary reminds me of Marcel Camus’ Black Orpheus. It is at its most sublime when its characters become figures in a landscape that throbs and surges with a sexual heat and as they move into the foreground we see in their eyes bottomless desire. Had Depp lost himself as Robinson did he may have found the redemption that the film cries out for.
Should you see The Rum Diary? Absolutely. Just prepare yourself for an experience that could have used more of what Depp describes as Thompson’s “savagery.” Or some of whatever that Voodoo priestess was doling out. Ask Bruce Robinson exactly what that shit was. I bet he knows.
The Rum Diary opens in theaters on October 28.
Johnny Depp and Bruce Robinson at the Austin Film Festival screening of The Rum Diary. Film critic Elvis Mitchell is conducting the interview. October 21, 2011. This is absolutely lovely, as you will see. I think everyone in the Paramount Theater was drunk. Hunter would have loved it.