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March 2012

The Rum Diary

cast: Johnny Depp, Amber Heard, Aaron Eckhart, Giovanni Ribisi, and Michael Rispoli

writer and director: Bruce Robinson

120 minutes (15) 2011
widescreen ratio 1.85:1
EIV blu-ray region B
[released 4 March]

RATING: 7/10
review by Christopher Geary

The Rum Diary poster
The Rum Diary

American writer Hunter S. Thompson (1937-2005) is credited with the postmodernist innovation of 'gonzo journalism', a literary style that centred news reports upon the involvement of a celebrity-seeking writer in events, instead of just presenting a straight record of a story's facts. Biased by creative necessity, gonzo reportage led organically towards Thompson's later work as a semi-autobiographical novelist of cult-worthy acclaim.

Based upon Thompson's most famous book (published in 1971), Terry Gilliam's cult movie Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas (1998) starred Johnny Depp as Raoul Duke - a thinly disguised Thompson, and Benicio del Toro as his travelling companion and chemist Dr Gonzo, living through drug trippy hallucinations depicted on-screen in a flavoursome binge of visual effects. It's a surreal fantasy comedy that can be weirdly amusing but is often incoherent by intent. A year later, Depp got his pavement star on Hollywood Boulevard's walk of fame - curiously denoting an official appreciation of the actor by the showbiz establishment after his portrayal of such a defiant iconoclast.

Written three decades before its first publication in 1998, Thompson's 'long lost' early novel The Rum Diary, is adapted by director Bruce Robinson, the British filmmaker who's most famous for black comedy Withnail & I (1987). Robinson followed that hit with the bizarre satire How To Get Ahead in Advertising (1989), and the serial-killer mystery-thriller Jennifer 8 (1992), but The Rum Diary is his first movie for nearly 20 years.

Although this is a 'spiritual prequel' to Gilliam's Fear And Loathing..., it stars Johnny Depp as Paul Kemp, another alter-ego of Thompson, a reporter struggling to find his unique voice as a writer. It's 1960, and Paul moves to Puerto Rico from New York for a new job at a failing San Juan newspaper. He arrives dishevelled with 'conjunctivitis' but demanding editor Lotterman (Richard Jenkins) expects Paul to save the evidently ailing business with fresh blood of low alcohol content.

The town is a colourful and photogenic landscape of cynics and eccentrics with varied grim slum districts and fluffy tourist enclaves. Thrown puff pieces and horoscopes, it is not long before newcomer Paul has to leave his posh hotel refuge and accept a room-mate option with the newspaper's staff photographer, hard-bitten cynic Sala (Michael Rispoli). There's no tap water but they do have a still producing 470-proof rum and, with binoculars, they can watch a Nixon versus JFK debate on a neighbour's TV set.

Paul encounters shady entrepreneur Sanderson (Aaron Eckhart, Paycheck, The Black Dahlia, The Dark Knight, Battle: Los Angeles), and ambitious social climber who is concocting a lucrative property deal to build a hotel complex on a Caribbean island. "There's a bad vibe developing," at both low and high tides of Paul's circumstances, his boss becomes increasingly difficult while the local workforce are unhappy and revolting. Paul's frequently untenable situation, engenders slapstick farce antics when he's introduced to bigger leagues of a political conspiracy scheme. There's a somewhat desperate recourse to cockfighting salvation via voodoo for our vaguely moral champion gambling against multifarious crooks. A drug taken like eye drops results in brief hallucinatory CGI delirium, but any hopes of rectifying the balance of dreams and reality are seemingly lost.

Giovanni Ribisi (Avatar, remakes of Gone In 60 Seconds, Flight Of The Phoenix, and The Mod Squad) is great here in feverishly rambling argumentative overkill mode as the newspaper's supposed 'religious correspondent', Moberg. Amber Heard (Drive Angry, John Carpenter's The Ward, And Soon The Darkness remake) provides some delicious blonde eye-candy as Sanderson's trophy fiancée Chenault. Depp is okay but like many of his recent movies (The Tourist, Alice In Wonderland, Public Enemies), he gives only a sadly lacklustre performance.

Overall, The Rum Diary is all mere prologue and unfulfilled potential, without offering much in the way of energy or imaginative substance beyond a certain stagnant moodiness, reeking of shadowy dangers, generating a lazy critique of exploitative capitalism. It's a Caribbean drama that's mildly reminiscent of Sydney Pollack's disappointing Havana (1990), starring Robert Redford, Lena Olin, Raul Julia, and Alan Arkin.

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