The Rum Diary is a rum film, one that examines writing and gesture and asks some sometimes familiar and ultimately difficult questions about and of writers, actors, art poseurs. What drives one, what inspires one, what makes one feel that something is worthwhile doing? How far can hoping for ‘a voice made of ink and rage’ carry someone?
Johnny Depp had well-publicised close links to the late American writer Hunter S. Thompson. He attended the good doctor’s funeral, whereby the mortal remains of HST were launched into the sky from a cannon, a cannon paid for by Depp, a cannon fashioned with great subtlety in accordance with Thompson’s wishes to resemble an extended middle finger. Depp gave a memorable personation of Thompson’s alter ego
Dr.Gonzo Raoul Duke in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. He bought the rights to The Rum Diary, an early novel depicting a writer, Kemp, finding an outraged and outrageous writing voice. The novel was finally released late in Thompson’s career.
At Depp’s request, the script was written by a similarly legendary figure, Bruce Robinson, who penned The Killing Fields and Withnail & I, among other choice word pleasures. Robinson had eschewed Hollywood since a miserable experience making the film Jennifer 8, and seemed content to find other outlets for his excellent writing over the last 15 years or so. Somehow, Johnny Depp, through a combination of charm, flattery, booze and outright bribery, contrived to entice Robinson from cinematic retirement to direct The Rum Diary as well. The film has ‘flopped’ in America, meaning it has so far taken less money than it cost to make. The publicity in Britain has had something of a ‘pearls before swine’ tint, the unspoken suggestion being that Robinson’s pungent dialogue and Depp’s performance have shot over the heads of ignorant Yank cineastes, save those East Coasters and selected Gonzophiles dotted across the landscape.
This is unfair, not just in its sniffy pandering to cultural stereotypes. Such a little actually happens at such slow pace in the film, it’s clearly not intended to bust blocks. It’s also certainly, if not a vanity project, then a labour of love for Depp. It is as close an approximation of an ‘indie’ film as one might expect from an eccentric multimillionaire actor hiring in a noted ex-boozefreak auteur to give his tribute film some further loose wolf with a lone cannon outsider cred. Robinson, to his credit, says he read the actual book twice and then put it away. As well as Thompson, his screenplay incorporates Robinson themes of how writing, and acting, can try, fail, but fail better, to make any sort of difference to anything.
It has also got some giggles in it. Bruce Robinson is on his driest form in some of the scenes. One character is described as not giving ‘one fifth of a fuck’, another as having ‘blackheads like braille’. As fans of Thompson, especially of Robinson, and of Depp, when he’s not wearing nail varnish and impersonating Keith Richard, we found ourselves satisfied, in the way that very fine wine from a sensational cellar will give the illusion of you not being drunk, but will taste very well and then render you susceptible in the plain air.
The tormented spirit of Thompson, Robinson’s own taste for the macabre, and ‘infinitum nihil’, infinite nothing, Depp’s darksome production company, also ensure some wonderfully gruesome, surreal segments: a sex scene interrupted by Hitler speeches on gramophone disk; a fighting cock voodoo blessing sequence where Kemp demands the hermaphrodite priest ‘empower the fowl’. These are the brief moments where the black insanity that rides along with us all, claws embedded in the undercarriage, is revealed, slavering and gurgling, as the coach hurtles by. Do we look ourselves in the mirror and see a waning crescent of blood around the iris, metaphorically, symbolically, actually? What does it take to tip us over the edge?
Still, there remain some unseemly moments to mar a good film. You can tell that Depp wanted something of the strange and hilarious sadness of Withnail and I to shape the film, but there’s homage and there’s burglary. We sat there agog as a drug purchase and psychedelic sequence ‘referenced’ Withnail and I so closely (‘What do you want for it?’ … ‘I’ve got fear!’) that we expected Depp to start prancing like a tit, as Giovanni Ribisi’s dissolute Moberg comments that the greatest decade in history is just beginning and they have to go and get some black paint.
I suppose these sorts of self-referential, warm, wet circles on the bar top are an appropriate image to summarise a film that in one layer is by drinkers about drinkers for drinkers… Yet it redeems itself as it goes further, depicting a struggle to say, to do, something about all the horribly seedy shit things that people can say and do to themselves and each other in pursuit of money, meaning, merit, purity, release.