Saturday 24 February 2018

Review: The Rum Diary

Rating: * * *
(15A, limited release)

Paul Whitington

Johnny Depp's attachment to the spirit, writings and person of Hunter S Thompson is well known. The two became firm friends in the mid-1990s, and Depp moved into Thompson's house while preparing to play the writer in the 1998 film Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.

It was Depp who fired Thompson's ashes from a cannon during an appropriately eccentric funeral service in 2005, and Depp who encouraged him to publish The Rum Diary, a novel he'd written and abandoned in the early 1960s. An attempt to film it has been staggering along since the year 2000, and without Depp's involvement The Rum Diary would probably never have appeared at all.

Intriguingly, the movie is directed by Bruce Robinson, the English filmmaker who's most famous for Withnail and I but hasn't made a feature film in almost 20 years. He does a pretty competent job here, too, as do Depp and a decent supporting cast, and it's the shortcomings of Thompson's novel that ultimately let this fairly entertaining movie down.

The Rum Diary was inspired by Thompson's time as a newspaper hack in San Juan, Puerto Rico, in the early 1960s, and the book's boozy hero, Paul Kemp, is a thinly veiled version of himself. Depp is Kemp, and his performance here is a toned-down revival of his extravagant turn in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.

Kemp arrives in Puerto Rico with a hangover and a doctored CV to apply for a job at The San Juan Star, an English language newspaper that's tottering on the brink of bankruptcy. Its editor, Edward J Lotterman (Richard Jenkins), barks loud and wears a frightful wig that clings to his scalp like a shipwrecked poodle.

He soon figures out that Kemp's CV is a work of fiction, and asks him searching questions about his drinking habits. "At the upper end of social," Kemp replies, lying like a dog, but Lotterman gives him the job anyway, and warns him not to rock the boat with his stories.

Initially, he doesn't. Instead he falls in with a group of debauched fellow hacks and spends most of his time getting drunk and high and gambling on cockfights. But then he meets a suave American businessman called Sanderson (Aaron Eckhart).

In the early 1960s, Puerto Rico was awash with dodgy American financiers and real estate developers, and Kemp is compromised when he gets mixed up in Sanderson's big plans for a US naval base on the island that's about to be abandoned. He lures Kemp into doing publicity for a lavish resort project with promises of a big payoff, but Kemp is more interested in Sanderson's gorgeous girlfriend Chenault (Amber Heard).

She's pretty keen on him too, and as Kemp becomes ever more obsessed with her, Sanderson's true intentions are revealed and the newspaper's investors threaten to pull the plug.

Anyone who's ever read Thompson's wonderfully woozy essays will know what to expect from The Rum Diary. The film works best when Thompson's voice is clearly heard, as in the early scenes when Kemp makes the acquaintance of kindred spirits Bob Sala (Michael Rispoli) and the manic, Hitler-obsessed Moberg (Giovanni Ribisi).

The antics of these drunken louts provide the most entertaining scenes in a film that's unevenly written and is weighed down by an incongruous and unlikely love story. Heard is a spectacular-looking woman with something of the glamour of a 1950s starlet, but she's stiff and ill-at-ease here as the blonde siren who lures Kemp on to the rocks.

An even bigger problem arrives in the film's last third when, having set up at least three cliffhanging plotlines, the script abandons them all and ends in dissatisfying confusion.

Robinson and Depp would argue that they've been faithful to the letter and spirit of Thompson's original novel, but they might have been better advised to tack on an actual ending.

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