In Withnail and I, Bruce Robinson gave us one of the most iconic characters ever to spring forth from a gin bottle in the form of Richard E. Grant’s Withnail. Alchoholic, intelligent and somewhat pathetic, Withnail was the archetypes for students in the 80s. So, it seemed like a no-brainer that Robinson became involved in the film adaptation of Hunter S. Thompson’s The Rum Diary; Thompson’s ‘long lost’ novel. (EBFS takes some issue with the term ‘long lost’ as it was never lost. It just went from publisher to publisher for 30 years until someone chose to publish it on the back of the popularity of Terry Gilliam’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. We digress….)
Johnny Depp previously played Thompson alter-ego, Raoul Duke, in the aforementioned Fear and Loathing. Like Withnail, his performance became equally iconic and allowed everyone to forget Where the Buffalo Roam ever existed. When he took over from Josh Harnett as the lead of The Rum Diary, the world produced a ‘Hurrah’ that could be heard from space.
So, with Robinson on the script/directing duties and Depp unleashing his special brand of kooky acting chops onto Puerto Rico, The Rum Diary was destined to be a new cult favourite. Right?
Then why does it all feel so flat?
Well, the main issue is the plot. It’s very pedestrian. Journalist, Paul Kemp (Johnny Depp) takes a job at The San Juan Star, hoping to write the great American novel. Along the way, he gets caught up with businessman, Hal Sanderson (Aaron Eckhart), and falls in love with the enticing Chenault (Amber Heard), Sanderson’s girlfriend. You see, despite Thompson’s usual motifs of corrupt businesses and the American dream, this is really the story of a love triangle. And not a very interesting one. Depp and Heard have next to no chemistry and feel like they’re in two separate films spliced together. Which leads us onto problem number two…
Johnny Depp. EBFS doesn’t like having to criticise Depp. We love his floppy haired ‘tude and have a tiny man crush on him. However, he is just not suited for this role. Yes, yes, he’s 20 years older than the literary version of Paul Kemp, but whilst Andrew Garfield is allowed to play a 17 year old Peter Parker, we will let that one slide. The problem is that Depp plays Kemp as Hunter S. Thompson. Albeit, a mostly sober, dashingly handsome version. So, whilst you should be engaged in Robinson’s film, you find yourself wishing the film would do a flashforward to Thompson waking up in the Colorado mountains and screaming about the pig-fucker Nixon.
Eckhart is dependable as shady Sanderson, but he teeters of on the precipice of ham. His character performs such a handbrake turn into EVIL BUSINESSMAN, it’ll make your head spin. The only actor who came across as doing anything remotely interesting is, surprisingly, Giovanni Ribisi, who plays Moberg, San Juan Star’s black sheep. Stumbling around in an alcoholic daze brought on by homemade rum, and listening to records of Hitler’s greatest speeches, Ribisi is thoroughly entertaining it’s a shame that he’s not on the screen more.
With an ending that feels like everyone ran out of money/interest, The Rum Diary is an easy way to spend 2 hours, but you’ll struggle to shake the feeling that this could have been so much more.