Film Comment: The Rum Diary deserves more credit

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It’s fair to say that this latest Hunter S Thompson translation has been attracting more flack than a Junker over London, but perhaps it deserves a little more credit than it has been given, or maybe just an independent jury. The problem with most of the film fans (including myself) who flocked to see The Rum Diary is the two comparisons that the creative team behind it make you jump to. We all, somehow, wanted Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas and Withnail & I at the same time and better. It’s a fair assumption to make, for the more zealous. Look at the film through these particular goggles and you won’t be happy. The camera seems somehow too expensive and too well operated. The cast seems unnervingly bigger and better. Benicio Del Toro is fatter and a bit worse and not Benicio Del Toro, while Withnail is now American, cleaner shaven and in no need of a coat.

I’d argue though, that while the Gilliamless film does fall short of its accidental ancestors, it is still more than worth watching, even if director Bruce Robinson may not have another cult hit on his hands. Johnny Depp is nowhere near as ethereal and mystic as he was under Gilliam, but has retained his requisite Gonzo charm and chill; as always, Depp delivers. Our Del Toro proxy (Michael Rispoli) does a fine enough job as Thompson’s (aka Kemp’s) latest overweight psychedelic henchman, Richard Jenkins is refreshing, Amber Heard is stunning and believable, while Aaron ‘Two-face’ Eckhart (one of the most 50/50 love hate actors ever) really does pull off the perfect slick-back egomaniac. I doubt Giovanni Ribisi has ever been even an inch unconvincing in anything, be he shuddering his way brilliantly through Saving Private Ryan or Public Enemies, or even just being the only believable human/and or stupid alien in stupid stupid stupid Avatar. He obviously does not intend to drop the ball now. More Ribisi! Be in everything!

At times it does manage to recreate the beautifully specific envy conjured by both Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas and Withnail & I and all you want to do for several hours is get dangerously drunk at someone else’s expense within the security of a predetermined screenplay keeping you out of hospital, or at least the crematorium. However this abandon lacks permanence and we are often reminded that there is some kind of plot going on.

From the most unaffected perspective it is possible to look at The Rum Diary from, however, I vouch that most fans of similar stuff would be above and beyond pleasantly surprised. I was talking to a friend of mine who did not enjoy the film so much; ‘I don’t really get where it was going,’ she said (and to be fair it’s a perfectly reasonable accusation to make), ‘nothing really seemed to happen.’ Perhaps, by contrast, that is exactly what so many people should love about the film. Through it all, The Rum Diary remains loyal to this maxim: ‘May Nothing Really Happen’. That’s what we loved about Fear And Loathing, it’s certainly what we loved about Withnail & I; and while The Rum Diary certainly is a fair bit more convoluted than its predecessor, ultimately, the plot does fizzle satisfactorily into zilch, (apart from an irritatingly conclusive epitaph which I reckon people could easily choose to ignore at their own digression) and that, really, is the beauty of it. Reading the blurb on the DVD, viewers may suspect that Hunter S has gone all Ocean’s Eleven, but not to worry, he hasn’t. My friend also commented that ‘there was too much rum.’ At points of the narrative, I’m sure, the fictional Paul Kemp would agree. It’s this kind of approach that Robinson brings to the table, ensuring that most lessons remain unlearnt. That is, apart from the essential ones that our autobiograpicalishesque hero had to learn before he made literature a richer place.

The truth of it is, perfect homage or not, that a saga of these would make for excellent watching. Different directors, alternative henchmen, and Depp as the perpetually refreshing template he has etched out for himself. We can’t stop here, even if it’s not quite bat country.

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