To members of a certain generation, one that predates me, at least, Hunter S Thompson is someone who “carries the illness forward for all us, always wearing the right coat while traveling outside the realms of possibility”. That language alone gives you some insight into what the good doctor was about and this poetic blast delivered by the singer Grace Slick with regard to reading him she likened it to ” a demented spiritual experience; (with) no white light just shit that’s it”. While it’s not in my capability nor my intention to spell out his list of achievements, he who described himself as nothing more than “a nice guy and an athlete”, the latter alluding to his ‘judicious’ use of drugs. It’s more that one can’t help be invigorated, inspired and compelled to action by his words, which Johnny Depp, who was a very close friend, clearly was. The Rum Diary was pretty much all Johnny Depp, from unearthing it in a pile of unpublished works the man had left lying around, to helping publish it, and finally to producing it. A labour of love for more than a decade, it’s a beautiful tribute and in its own “carries that illness forward” for another generation.
As a movie experience though it will confound many. Unfortunately, Depp is maybe too big , too cool some might say and too sexy for audiences to accept a pre-gonzo Hunter alter ego, without some big Hollywood style pay off. Those, however, who it won’t confound will enjoy the trip down to the tropics, Puerto Rico this time , in the early 1960’s, with Depp, as he steps into the shoes of a young itinerant journalist, named Paul Kemp looking to escape the nightmare of the ‘American Dream”.
It doesnt take long before Kemp drinks an entire minibar dry and contracts “pink eye”, trashes his hotel room and all this before breakfast. A sort ‘fuck you’ introduction to the Great American Dream Hunter style. That’s the hilarious opening scene. Director Bruce Robinson, hasn’t lost his understated comic timing in setting up the scene, which Depp, himself, had to coax the Withnail and I director out of a 2 decade retirement. But sadly the film is not a rollercoaster ride of ethanol binging and cock fighting in the same it was with Fear and Loathing, well it is in some ways. The Rum Diary is a much darker story on what the young writer sees in this soon to be exploited paradise. With Robinson and Thompson kindred spirits in opposition to the aggressive Calvinist, neo imperialisim of Nixon and the neo-conservatism of Thatcher, it’s not unsurprising that the script penned by Robinson also does have those political undertones.. They are backdrops, however and they serve for the development of the young writer to find his voice.. A theme that was left unresolved in the film, but prevalent to the very end.
Paul Kemp was based on Hunter ‘s experiences in Puerto Rico as a young man in the early 60’s working for a small newspaper as such The Rum Diary is also a story of the old world of newspapers, showing how insidious the tentacles of both government and business can corrupt and eventually strangle the voice of not just this young journalist, but for a society trying to find some integrity. Making this all happen are some sterling performances by Richard Jenkins as the stressed editor of the struggling newspaper and his gone to seed photographer Michael Rispoli. Plus a brilliant star turn by Giovani Ribisi as the degenerate reporter with a penchant for the The Fuhrer’s speeches. For fans of Depp playing the young Hunter though, it serves as a wonderful primer into the kinds of ideas and situations the young man soaking up. And Depp does a wonderful job at playing a man almost 25 years his junior. On this level the film will resonate.
If the movie is a little unhinged, so are most benders and that’s what this is. A great big bender with scuzzy lowdown freaks full of conviction and heart. Plus one hot sexy girl and a supercool sportscar.
The Rum Diary hits cinemas 11th November 2011.
Director: Bruce Robinson
Stars:Johnny Depp, Giovanni Ribisi, Aaron Eckhart
Runtime 120 min