The Rum Diary took a long time to get to the screens. It was always going to be a difficult story to tell, because of the pen that wrote it, and the looming, rather ominous shadow of brilliance cast over it by its odd-ball sibling, Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas. But is it worth the wait and the effort?
Well, sort of. There is absolutely no disguising the fact that The Rum Diary is a vanity project, made with near tender loving attention by Johnny Depp and director Bruce Robinson for Depp’s hero and friend Hunter S Thompson, but that doesn’t always have to mean that what is produced is without artistic merit. Just look at Terrence Malick – a director with a similar creative gestation period to Robinson in fact – whose recent films have been little more than artistic onanism, and yet who continues to be the darling of those who give a film’s “importance” higher precedence than its entertainment value. Snobs, I call them.
So does The Rum Diary fit the same bill as Malick’s vanity projects? Is it little more than fluff, made for the smallest of audiences on the affection-clouded whim of its star producer? Or is there entertainment value behind the vanity?
There are certainly good things to be said of The Rum Diary: it’s just that there aren’t nearly as many as I would have liked. The film looks great, and it has been directed very well in that respect, but you get the feeling that the triumphant indignation that Robinson was aiming for has somewhat eluded him in this case. That might have something to do with the fact that The Rum Diary was Thompson’s least successful work (which is precisely why it wasn’t published initially), because the material is certainly a little too flat to really inspire, and there is something a little empty at the heart of the project.
All of the impressive exterior, and the occasionally very good ideas are ultimately lost in the face of the lack of substance, and the disjointed nature of the narrative: it’s not baffling in any way, it’s just difficult to care whether anything has much meaning. And tragically, it’s painfully obvious that someone somewhere thinks that it really does.
Johnny Depp is charismatic and watchable in the lead, but he isn’t actually very good. He seems now to be trading on an intangible wayward essence in his films these days – pantomiming in self-sploitative fashion for the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, or just being plain odd for Tim Burton – so that when it comes to conventional acting jobs, he appears to have forgotten his notes. As Paul Kemp, he is unconvincing as a drunk and while he is definitely channelling Thompson’s odd-ball spirit, in stark contrast to his career high work on Fear & Loathing, he just isn’t quite Gonzo enough.
And it is the comparison with that film that will perpetually devalue this one. Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas is a beautiful explosion of Gonzoid excess, warped further by the sporadically brilliant filter of Terry Gilliam’s mind and featuring a cartoonish, exceptional performance from Johnny Depp, this is not. Sat side by side with Fear & Loathing, The Rum Diary is unexceptional, unspectacular and rather unnecessary.
Both Bruce Robinson (in Withnail & I) and Depp (Fear & Loathing…) have done excess better, and more grotesquely, with wonderful effect: unfortunately in the grand history of the cinema of excess, The Rum Diary will
Overall, a very solid and largely impressive transfer. Clarity is very good: textures and detail are both spot on for the most part, though there are some softer sequences dotted throughout where the usually fine layer of grain increases its distraction and robs the image of some sharpness. It’s not a problem in close ups but wider shots do suffer a little. Colours and black-levels are both very good as well, and there are very few noticeable examples of obvious artificial processing.
Most importantly, the transfer stays faithful to the aesthetic manifesto of the film, and when quality isn’t quite at the very highest level, you get the feeling that it’s more artistic decision rather than fumbled technicals behind those moments.
Audio is roughly the same quality: solid but largely unspectacular with good clarity in dialogue, and impressively dynamic background sounds and effects.
Shamefully limited, though the Back-Story documentary that charts the development of both Thompson’s novel and the author and friend Depp’s attempts to bring it to the screen is very good. It’s just a shame that there couldn’t have been more material of even half of this quality to round the disc out, or a commentary with Depp to crown the behind-the-scenes story. A missed opportunity.
- A Voice Made Of Ink & Rage: Inside The Rum Diary
- The Rum Diary Back-Story
This article was first posted on March 7, 2012