Johnny Depp makes a lethargic, spiritless return to the role of Hunter S. Thompson in â€˜The Rum Diary,â€™ adapted from the addled live-wire journalistâ€™s long-unpublished, semi-autobiographical first novel. British writer-director Bruce Robinson (best known for 1987â€™s misfit masterpiece â€˜Withnail & Iâ€™) creates more than a few sparks with his sharp, Waugh-esque wit, but the tone is uneven and the plot increasingly sluggish. Richly hued cinematography from Dariusz Wolski creates a tangible sense of sun-drenched 1950â€™s Puerto Rico, where grandiose-but-disaffected writer Paul Kemp (aka, Thompson) escapes to drink, write horoscopes for the San Juan Star, fall in love with a dangerous blonde, and continue drinking. Supporting roles are well cast, particularly Giovanni Ribisi as a late-stage alchy journalist making his own â€œ470 proofâ€ liquor, and Michael Rispoli as Deppâ€™s grubby, permissive sidekick — a much tamer version of Benicio del Toroâ€™s demonic Dr. Gonzo from Terry Gilliamâ€™s far superior, berserker â€˜Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.â€™
Depp gave an iconic, electrifying performance as Thompson in the Gilliam film, but he has never been more miscast than he is as Thompson/Kemp here. Like a graying matinee idol still trying to play Romeo, Depp is disengaged and age-inappropriate as young writer Kemp (early 20â€™s in the book). His indifference belies the PR story that this project was a labor of love; his moppish haircut canâ€™t hide his puffy, play-dough face and flat, unconceived performance. Occasionally he whips out his ever-atrophying roster of Disney-movie faces to get an easy laugh. Other times he dusts off his ‘Fear and Loathing’ machine-gun vocal inflection, but it’s stale and ire-less; heâ€™s just going through the motions.
Was it Robinsonâ€™s lack of technique or Deppâ€™s vanity that kept the Kemp character from being fully revamped, to accommodate the celebrity casting, into an almost-50 boozer for whom the San Juan Star is the â€œlast chance saloonâ€? As is, writer and actor never seem to commit to giving Kemp a particular age or circumstance; he exists only in incoherent limbo. The story would make easy, automatic sense if the character were 23, Thompsonâ€™s age when he wrote the novel. He should be a young, brash writer whose inchoate abilities have yet to catch up with his aggrandized self-belief. Then, disillusioned by dealing with slimy real estate developers, cowardly journalists, blondes for sale, and the general complacence of human evil, finds his purpose in raging against the “piss puddle of greed spreading throughout the world.”
You can read that story back into the book, but the movie only hints at it. Still, Robinson provides many satisfying moments, such as when Richard Jenkinsâ€™ editor-in-chief, long resigned to being a mouthpiece for the powers that be, instructs Kemp in corporate buzz-speak to â€œassimilate contradictory points of view into one voice.â€ Or when, presented with Kempâ€™s extensive mini-bar bill, Jenkins leaks sarcasm: â€œHowâ€™s the sobriety coming?â€ â€œIâ€™m cutting back.â€ â€œOn the size of the bottles?â€
Some movies, very few, are alchemically perfect, beyond deconstruction; they seem somehow to exist without cuts, or scenes, or construction; they didnâ€™t come to be; they just, immaterially, are. Robinsonâ€™s â€˜Withnail & Iâ€™ is one of those movies. Itâ€™s about two perpetually out-of-work actors in 1969 who flee a London winter and their heatless trashcan of an apartment for a gentlemanâ€™s weekend in the country, only to find that they are unable to escape themselves. Richard E. Grant gives one of the great screen performances of all time as the scowling, flamboyant, booze-basted Withnail: petulant, precocious, bitter, broken, brilliant, and bombed.
â€˜Withnailâ€™ is an oeuvre in itself; its reach spans the 30 subsequent years during which Robinson has rarely made films, and makes them seem inexplicably prolific. Again: that mysterious alchemy at work. Itâ€™s a movie about the unquiet guilt of the functional, having had to cut ties with the lost causes. â€˜Rum Diary,â€™ despite its several amusements, never captures the same sense of loss lurking beneath the colorful misadventure.