Bruce Robinson’s Withnail And I is one of my favorite films. Period. Maybe in my top five, certainly in my top ten. I’ve never really written about it on Things That Don’t Suck, mostly because its just a tough film to get a handle on. It’s a raucous comedy that for long tracks of its run time isn’t remotely concerned with being funny. It’s the film about the death of an era that doesn’t try and make any grand statements regarding said era. It’s two principles are blitzed for 95% of the run time, but I wouldn’t really call it a drug movie the way say The Big Lebowski or Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas. Occasionally lyrical, sad, the best film ever made about male friendship and yes hysterically funny (Withnail’s desperate whinge when he realizes that they’ve come to the country sans Asprins never fails to draw a huge belly laugh from me) Withnail And I is one of the very few films that can genuinely said to be it’s own thing.
Likewise the career of Bruce Robinson has always been one of cinema’s great what ifs for me. After Withnail, Robinson made How To Get Ahead In Advertising, a fairly vicious satire on European Corporate culture and then came to America to direct the dismal serial killer film Jennifer 8. The experience infamously broke any desire Robinson had to make not only films within the Hollywood system, but films in any system. Over night he packed up his game, emerging over the next two decades to occasionally have his scripts ruined by others.
Until now… His return to directing was without exaggeration my most anticipated cinematic event of 2011. Just what the hell would he make? Well if we are to use The Rum Diary to judge the type of films that Robinson might have made in those two lost decades (a problematic proposition I acknowledge) then perhaps we can rest a little easier knowing that we lost out of two decades of How To Get Ahead In Advertisings rather than two decades of Withnails. The Rum Diary is a messy, entertaining film that has some real moments but it can’t help but feel like less than what it could have been.
The Rum Diary follows Hunter Thompson stand in Paul Kemp as he lands in Puerto Rico takes up with a paper on its last legs and for the first time finds his way to the dark nexus of power, hubris and insanity that Thompson would make his home for the rest of his career. Depp is uncannily good as Thompson, all the more impressive for convincingly managing to play the character younger than he did in Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas, despite the near fifteen year break in between the two films.
There are scenes and images here that work incredibly well, Kemp’s eerie discussion with a lobster, a cameo by a certain runny food item that’ll make Withnail fans laugh, a night race through the Puerto Rico back country. They work so well in fact that I didn’t realize how conflicted I felt about the movie until I started writing about it. Despite all the fine moments, there is simply no getting around the fact that The Rum Diary is a movie with a broken spine.
The film almost plays as a super hero origin, with Thompson gaining bits of his persona from each character he interacts with. His hard drugs here, his love of cars there, his rage at societal injustice over there. And there in lies the problem, the film watches Thompson do these things with an awe usually reserved for watching Arthur receive Excalibur from the Lady In The Lake. The film is a hagiography of Thompson (and say what you will about Gilliam’s film but it was never that). All the rough edges smoothed away, the writer presented in The Rum Diary probably wouldn’t have written anything worth reading, let alone make a movie about. On the way home I rented Gonzo, which I had previously dismissed as empty surface hero worship and I feel like I owe the director of that documentary an apology, because compared to The Rum Diary, Gonzo is Raging Bull.
The flat feeling extends in all directions Robinson has assembled a good cast here and they’re all playing broad. Amber Heard, a talented actress with rotten luck (I mean God now she’s in the first Johnny Depp movie to flop in forever) never gets beyond “the girl”. Giovanni Ribsi is a sight gag the entire film (a good one) worst of all is Aaron Eckhart, who is capable of playing this character in a much more interesting way but instead walks around with “THE BAD GUY” Inked on his forehead.
Any hope of redemption falls apart when the film follows its ambigious ending with a title card so unthinkingly celebratory I had to suppress my gag reflex. Yes Thompson was a great author who wrote some great things. But his life was not an unqualified triumph, just the opposite. If you wanted to give The Rum Diary an honest ending perhaps you should have gone for, “The beauty of the world, paragon of animals; and yet to me, what is this quintessence of dusk. Man delights not me, no, nor women neither, nor women neither."