Bedtime for Gonzo

The Rum Diary review
By Armond White for CityArts.info
Johnny Depp‘s Hunter Thompson persona is no different from his pirate Jack Sparrow–another intoxicated hipster whose antisocial bravado is backed by multi-million dollar Hollywood privilege. Depp is so infatuated with Hunter Thompson’s hipster cool that his new production of The Rum Diary (based on Thompson’s early unpublished novel about his 1960 penance as a reporter in Puerto Rico) marks his second turn portraying the late writer.
After the 2000 film Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Depp doesn’t get any deeper into Thompson. The Rum Diary simply extends the self-aggrandizing. For Depp, Thompson represents an inside outsider, woozily pontificating on crazed subcultures with a totally solipsistic sense of righteousness. As journalist Paul Kemp, Depp portrays a younger version of Thompson’s soused cynic. Set in 1960, as if the last days of innocence, The Rum Diary follows Kemp/Thompson awakening to the corruption of American capitalism among real estate developers and journalists. It suits the era without enlightening it.
Best that can be said for The Rum Diary is that it’s less offensive than George Clooney club smugness. Thompson’s journalist’s instinct (from before the term journalism meant TV gadabout) seeks oddball characters rather than social targets. Kemp’s ragtag colleagues Sala (Michael Rispoli) and Moberg (Giovanni Ribisi) tolerate their cynicism with booze and drugs; it helps them to cope with being in the same boat as their exploitative boss Lotterman (Richard Jenkins) and the object of their juvenile disdain, rich, Waspy developer Sanderson (Aaron Eckhart). It is Sanderson who advises “Nobody wants to rock the boat, they want to climb aboard”–a clearer social observation than the Clooney club admits yet it’s just slipped into The Rum Diary as if hazily recalled.
This complacent take on Thompson seems disconnected from the ethics at the base of his sossled journalism. Kemp’s easy temptation–especially by Sanderson’s hot babe Chennault (Amber Heard or Jennifer Connelly 2.0)–offers the same useless, vicarious escapism as other bad Johnny Depp movies, particularly the nostalgic decadence of Blow.
Director-screenwriter Bruce Robinson doesn’t provide journalistic insight but the opposite: subcult shortsightedness. Best known for the ‘80s Brit comedy Withnail and I, Robinson specializes in dissipation. But his dry Brit wit is dusty; not flamboyant like Terry Gilliam’s Fear and Loathing and almost as inert as Art Linson’s film of Thompson’s Where the Buffalo Roam. Robinson’s mix of Latino sensuality and gringo obnoxiousness doesn’t sizzle or delight unlike those pointed introductory scenes of Richard Lester’s 1979 Cuba.
Worst that can be said for The Rum Diary is that it misses the point of Thompson’s naïve idealism. This was his version of Nathanael West’s Miss Lonelyhearts–exposing journalism to expose human frailty–but Robinson’s style lacks the conviction to be either appalled or scolding. The Rum Diary is not gonzo filmmaking but its opposite: Robinson approaches Thompson’s personal criticism of Third World exploitation and middle-class self-exploitation through dully, conventional means. He stages a chase scene poorly and a slo-mo drug experience is as attenuated as the sober scenes. This leaves Depp doing vain heroics: “I put the bastards of the world on notice!” Does he mean the means the millions who flock to his Pirates films or the millionaires who finance them and thus commercialize rebellion?