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Wednesday, May 23, 2012

The Rum Diary

To make up for all the recent late reviews, here's an early review of a film opening this week.

Based on an early Hunter S Thompson novel that only saw the light of day in 1998, The Rum Diary can best be appreciated - to steal a phrase usually associated with superhero comics - as the "Secret Origin" of the man who would go on to establish gonzo journalism, write a classic cult novel and create a public persona that was in equal parts laughable and laudable but always larger than life. Love him or hate him - and, lets be honest, there's plenty of reason to do both - Hunter S Thompson was a literary and journalistic icon whose mixture of righteous anger, humanistic compassion and drug-fueled weirdness makes him an intriguing figure even years after his his less-than-glorious death-by-suicide. On screen, he has already been portrayed by Bill Murray in the middling Where The Buffalo Roam and more pertinently by Johnny Depp in the maddeningly inconsistent but undeniably engrossing adaptation of his best know work, Fear and Loathing In Las Vegas.

If Fear and Loathing showed Thompson at his most "Thompsonian" - hyper, drug-addled lunatic whose ugliness is matched only by the beauty of his writing - then The Rum Diary is the "untold" story of his transformation from shy and a humble, if decidedly troubled, junior reporter into the cartoonish, yet authentically engaged and enraged father of an all-new kind of journalism. And crucially, it's made all the more effective by having the great Johnny Depp playing both "versions" of the man. There's an innocence to Depp's portrayal of Thompson here that slowly corrodes as he is confronted by the unstoppable seductive corruptness of the rich and powerful that sets him on his way to becoming the great defender of the underdog and the ruthless opponent of those who seek to abuse the power they are given. See, I told you there's something of a superhero's tale in there.

The Rum Diary is simply essential viewing for anyone even remotely interested in Hunter S Thompson and makes for a powerful companion piece to Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. With that, however, comes the inevitable downside: it has much of interest to the already faithful, or at least the already curious, but I don't see it winning any new converts.

Depp is phenomenal, it's true, and he is supported by a very fine cast - not least of which is Aaron Eckhart who once again proves to be the master of slimy charm - and a writer and director (Bruce Robinson) with a firm grasp on both Thompson's singular personality and his even more singular way with words. However, for all that, The Rum Diary is - much like the book, it has to be said - something of an overlong, rambling mess. Fear and Loathing is a bit of a mess too, no doubt about that, but it at least has a primal and magnetic energy to it that prevented dullness from ever truly setting in. The Rum Diary starts off well but it's lack of narrative drive quickly becomes apparent, as does the fact that the character progression of Thompson's cypher, Paul Kemp, is pretty much exactly what you expect it to be.

All in all then, it's a solid thumbs up for Hunter Thompson acolytes, a wavering thumb for Depp devotees and a moderate thumbs down for everyone else. That's really kind of fitting for a Hunter S Thompson film...


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