Genre: Biopic/Semi-autobiographical Comedy-Drama.
Starring: Johnny Depp, Amber Heard, Michael Rispoli, Richard Jenkins, Aaron Eckhart and Giovanni Ribisi.
Running Time: 120 mins. Approx.
Seen At: Didsbury.
On: Saturday, 12th November, 2011.
From the weird and wonderful mind of Hunter S. Thomson, after at least four long years in development, and under the directorial eye of Bruce Robinson (of Withnail & I fame, making his first film in fifteen years), comes The Rum Diary.
Based on the 1998 novel – formally a manuscript found by Johnny Depp in Thomson’s basement - it tells the story of Paul Kemp – a boozy journalist sent to nineteen-fifties Puerto Rico to write for a failing newspaper The San Juan Star – the only problem is, he soon falls for one of the local’s girlfriends, and gets lost in a debauched, drug-riddled journey of self discovery.
Obviously Kemp is firmly based on Thomson himself – this particular incarnation marks his pre-gonzo period of journalism, the fully-fledged version of which is shown through yet another of his alter-egos – Raoul Duke, in Terry Gilliam’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.
The very first shots of this film are of a bleary-eyed, bloodshot, and severely hung-over Depp as he recovers from drinking a hundred and sixty one miniatures. ‘Are they not complimentary?’ he later whimsies teasingly. Such is the tone for the rest of the film, razor-sharply written, beautifully shot and quietly - extremely funny.
It’s a world away from Depp’s glossy, gothic, family-friendly collaborations with Tim Burton. He’s exchanged fairytale landscapes and magical chocolatiers for grimy, rum-soaked typewriters, sunshine and (in some cases quite literally) ‘acid’-tongued humour.
Depp himself has never looked more comfortable in a role - tanned, relaxed and – incredibly youthfully preserved for a forty-eight year old who’s supposed to be playing a character in his twenties. Surely an Oscar must be far too long overdue.
Many of the supporting roles are also finely acted – but none quite so good as Giovanni Ribisi’s permanently inebriated Moberg – again, a likely awards contender.
Unfortunately Amber Heard’s Chennault, the bewitching love interest so lovingly described in the book, translates into a rather hollow, somewhat flimsy caricature on screen, and isn’t really given that much to do, except act like the stereotypical ‘blonde bombshell’.
Tonally, the novel is far darker and more serious than the film – a subplot involving domestic abuse is explored – but is thankfully spared here.
Much of the surprising humour is visual, including drinking the water from a fishbowl. Two standout scenes both involve cars – one without a front seat and one that is continually revved, pelting along a deserted road. Another hilarious moment sees Kemp and his photographer associate in court, after inventing a flame-thrower via alcohol consumption, where a poor, unsuspecting and anciently-elderly local proceeds to vomit over the dock in all the excitement.
The entire screenplay only ever utilizes two lines of dialogue from the whole novel – a choice informed by Robinson’s apparent admission that he just was unable to write in Thomson’s very distinctive and particular vernacular. This, again, is cleverly mirrored on-screen as Kemp muses: ‘I don’t know how to write like me’. Despite only making references to the source material very gingerly, Robinson succeeds in capturing the spirit of the novel perfectly – seemingly idyllic, with occasional, sudden undercurrents of alcohol-fuelled bursts of violence. Listen carefully, and a pounding political backdrop is also ever-present, jammed full of attacks on almost every social comment indicative of the time; from the criticism of Nixon’s Presidential technique, to the full realization of the gradual collapse of ‘The American Dream’.
Only at the very end is the savage subtext fully explored, with even the very final line of dialogue retaining all of Thomson’s inimitable trademark quirk.
It probably won’t get the awards recognition it so richly deserves, but this is nevertheless a superior take on a true modern classic, a real gem, in which Depp solidifies his status as the actor who really can play anyone. This is the role he was born to play.
Rating: * * * * *