Honourable the intent of Johnny Depp may be, his decision to continue adapting the written word of Gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson has been a reductive and testing period for his career. His work on Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas combined a strong performance and a blessing from the writer, along with Terry Gilliam behind the camera. Dragging Bruce Robinson of Withnail and I into the directing chair for the first time in almost twenty years is a bold and ambitious move. Thompson would have approved of such a wild and crazed decision, but not of this feature that sees his early novel, The Rum Diary, adapted for the big screen. Paul Kemp’s rum-soaked journey through journalism was not set to see the light of day. Not in this state.
Where the book is a powerful relay of capitalism in writing and why a good story can be tanked by bad intentions and a brutal sway to the political parties of one country or the other, The Rum Diary filters down to a plain and predictable story of love and backstabbing revenge. Rejection around every corner for Kemp (Depp), a cartoonish and ambitious adaptation of the lead character. From Depp comes a performance that feels estranged from the solid work he put in elsewhere. These are still the grim ravings of a sweat-soaked man on the cusp of sanity, but it is from a time before the drugs kicked in and took hold of the great writer this film senselessly tries to work into its narrative. It does not work because Kemp was not a truthful projection of Thompson, and The Rum Diary makes it out like he is.
What The Rum Diary is a creation of is journalism. It is a love letter to those that need it of the seediness and despair found in newsrooms ill-managed or understaffed. Aaron Eckhart makes an appearance in a dazzling white suit; Richard Jenkins wears an ill-fitting wig and Michael Rispoli makes it out looking best of all. His efforts as Sala the photojournalist provide a nice reproach to the fish out of water style Kemp is given. Sala is in his element in the dives and drudgery of the area. A foreigner finding his feet in a place that now feels like home. It is that beauty of filth The Rum Diary explores that keeps it afloat more often than not. It is just a shame Robinson cannot do that more than the occasional flourish or fascination with a fleeting idea.
Robinson’s great return to directing is not as great as it should be. But it isn’t a complete disaster. There is still something within The Rum Diary that will appeal to those hardcore Thompson fans. It is impossible to shake his writing style. It comes into the smallest pockets of this Depp-led feature. The screech of the tires on the tarmac, the bustling streets and the iconography of a great revolution on the outside while the press scuttles around covering bowling alleys and drinking cheap liquor where and when they can. There is grim beauty to it and most of it comes from the hot press offices. The sun-baked journalists working under a blackmailed hack who has no right to be in the editing chair. Conjunctivitis riddles the eyes of the protagonist, and there are times where the audience would be blessed with a lack of sight in this wavering Robinson feature.