Published Oct 27, 2011Having been published after the Terry Gilliam adaptation of Hunter S. Thompson's Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas rejuvenated interest in him and his beatnik predecessors, The Rum Diary has been primed for cinematic adaptation for years, going through a roster of financers and quashed developments, delaying it for more than a decade.
But despite these many hiccups, Johnny Depp is back to indirectly reprise his role as a substance-abusing gonzo journalist – here in the form of Paul Kemp, whose indiscretions are limited to libations – with the director of Withnail and I (Bruce Robinson) helming, which is, in theory, an ideal pairing for this particular textual interpretation.
The end result is a bit of a mixed bag though, having a far more literate and traditional form than Gilliam's manic depiction of the Thompson universe, but similarly having an unfocused and desultory vibe that distorts and contradicts its social and political observations about Puerto Rico in the late '50s.
With bouts of polemics about Richard Nixon, this cultural satire and bohemian rant about the frivolity of escape injects ersatz writer and reluctant journalist Kemp into a politically turbulent setting, giving him context and insight into the rising American exploitation of a poor country. Writing for the local paper, he's encouraged to say only positive things about the impeding shoreline tourist trade, where fat Americans bowl, sit on the beach and play the slots, lest he stir up unrest and awareness amongst the placated and manipulated locals.
Similarly, he's wooed by real estate developer Sanderson (Aaron Eckhart) to help pitch resort expansion on a nearby island, feeling conflicted about working for "the man," whilst hiding his attraction to Sanderson's trophy wife, Chenault (Amber Heard).
Of course, since this is a desperate attempt at a hip comedy, these cerebral observations are mixed with drunken escapades that land Kemp and buddy Sala (Michael Rispoli) in jail after breathing fire at a police officer. Sight gags involving presumed sodomy, with Paul bouncing on Sala's lap in a damaged car, propel the off-centre nature, much like the moonshine made from rocket fuel and the hilarity that ensues when people are either hammered or hung-over.
It's entertaining and amusing, for the most part, giving Depp the opportunity to smile quizzically at the insanity surrounding him, but it ultimately tries too hard to be appreciated beyond its surface value, just like any entity that insincerely prioritizes image over depth. (eOne)