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  Rum Diary, The The BGs: Before Gonzo
Year: 2011
Director: Bruce Robinson
Stars: Johnny Depp, Aaron Eckhart, Michael Rispoli, Amber Heard, Richard Jenkins, Giovanni Ribisi, Amaury Nolasco, Marshall Bell, Bill Smitrovich, Julian Holloway, Bruno Irizarry, Enzo Cilenti, Aaron Lustig, Tisuby González, Natalia Rivera, Karen Austin
Genre: Comedy, DramaBuy from Amazon
Rating:  6 (from 1 vote)
Review: Journalist Paul Kemp (Johnny Depp) has arrived in Puerto Rico and after the night he has had, he decides to swear off the booze, awakening in his hotel room and barely able to drag himself out of bed to open the door to room service. Noting the upended minibar, he explains to the employee that he was trying to open it to get some peanuts, which neither of them believe, and then it's time to eat breakfast, if he can keep it down, and face the day which means going to the offices of a local newspaper, as arranged, and seeing what work they have for him.

The fact the editor (a bewigged Richard Jenkins) puts him to work writing tourist puff pieces and horoscopes indicates that Kemp had not found his journalistic voice yet, so the rest of the movie amounted to whipping him into shape, that shape being the inimitable style of Hunter S. Thompson, on whose novel The Rum Diary was based. Star Depp was a friend of his and had encouraged him to publish this early "lost" novel, which had an unfortunate effect on the movie's chances when Thompson's fans who were delighted to read this book were equally disappointed with what adapter and director Bruce Robinson had done with it.

Even more of a letdown was that this was Robinson's first film at the helm after his Withnail & I had turned into a cult hit and led to Hollywood and the disaster of Jennifer 8, an experience so terrible that he had sworn off directing for the rest of his life. Depp had coaxed him back, and by all accounts it was a far better time for him, but if this apparent dream of mixing the disreputable laughs of Withnail with the gonzo journalism of Thompson promised more than it delivered, it was not a dead loss by any means. It simply belonged to a previous style of movie making, films like Our Man in Havana or The Ugly American, therefore it appeared curiously old-fashioned.

This in spite of the swearing and occasional drug use which you might have thought would bring out the best in Robinson's methods, but true laughs were thin on the ground. As for the political stuff, it was on surer footing as Kemp gets embroiled with expatriate Americans planning to exploit Puerto Rico for all it was worth, and the ethics of turning the locals into servants for the whites preyed on the mind of our hero, not to mention those locals themselves. Chief exponent of these plans was businessman Sanderson (Aaron Eckhart), whose fiancée Chenault (Amber Heard) Kemp is attracted to but has to keep his mind on his work as Sanderson has asked him to write for him.

Even that, we are intended to see, is an abuse of Kemp's talents, and his new associate is played with sharklike lack of sympathy by Eckhart so is marked out as the enemy the writer should be targetting rather than messing about in directionless jobs typing piffle. Depp was also backed up by a neat character turn by Michael Rispoli as a glimpse into the possible future for Kemp, a warning he manages to avoid by the close of the story where his consciousness has been raised. Not so good was Giovanni Ribisi employing exactly the same approach to his role as in every other film he'd been in, the wacked-out, mush-mouthed, borderline nut which by this stage was growing less overfamiliar and more a downright distraction, but everyone else managed to work up a sense of place and attitude that came across as authentic. No, the source was not stuck to religiously, but if you could get over that "film out of time" feeling The Rum Diary wasn't so bad. Music by Christopher Young (a touch of class, actually).
Reviewer: Graeme Clark


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