When Alex Cox was fired from Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, paving the way for Terry Gilliam to take over, it was seen as yet another example of the elusive nature of Hunter S. Thompson, both as a writer and a gonzo journalism legend. Like previous masterworks such as Naked Lunch and Gravity's Rainbow, many believed the maverick's work would never make an easy translation to the big screen, and while it was a bomb upon delivery, home video resurrected the Johnny Depp/Benicio Del Toro title, turning it into a certified cult phenomenon. As a result, the artist consistently known as Captain Jack Sparrow decided to champion an adaptation of Thompson's first novel, a weird little walk through the Puerto Rico of the late '50s/early '60s entitled The Rum Diary. Bringing film geek great Bruce Robinson (Withnail and I) along for the ride, the process would end up testing the patience of all involved. Again, audiences were indifferent, and considering Depp's current commercial clout, many decided to blame the source. With the Blu-ray release, one can now draw their own conclusion - and the answer is obvious: those who stayed away were wrong. Dead wrong.
Hoping to avoid the growing conservatism in America, journalist Paul Kemp (Depp) comes to Puerto Rico to work for the San Juan Star and its grumpy editor in chief, Edward J. Lotterman (Richard Jenkins). There, he meets seasoned vet Bob Sala (Michael Rispoli) and office pariah, Moberg (Giovanni Ribisi). He also runs into local hot shot Hal Sanderson (Aaron Eckhart) and the two strike up a casual acquaintance. While he tries to get a handle on his responsibilities, he also finds himself lost in a sea of corruption, disenfranchisement, and liquor. One day, Sanderson approaches Kemp about coming to work for him. He needs a man of words to help map out a strategy to convince the owners of some land to let he and his partners develop it. While not too keen on the idea, our hero can't help but agree. After all, he's falling for Sanderson's blond bombshell lady love, Chenault (Amber Heard). When he learns the truth about what is really going on, Kemp decides to straighten up and search for the truth. Things don't necessarily go as planned.
The Rum Diary is a terrific dark comedy disguised as a love letter to a late, great eccentric. Both Depp and Robinson have stated that the film focuses on a writer - in this case, a poorly disguised Thompson substitute - finally finding his voice. Wrapped inside a story centering on corruption, carpetbagging, backdoor business deals, and political awakening is the standard strangers in a strange land dynamic tied to a semi-recognizable human backstory. Thompson isn't trying to explain his growth into the king of seat of your pants press credentials. Instead, everything about The Rum Diary is a learning curve, from the locale and its leanings to the various representations of the Fourth Estate in flux. We get the standard collection of characters - the slick suited sharp, his hottie gal pal, the graft oriented bureaucrats, the know it all reporter, the cowardly publisher, the rebellious news room outsider, etc. and we anticipate the typical plot points. But thanks to Thompson, as channeled through Robinson (who handled the scripting chores as well) everything takes the necessary quirky turn. The results redefine what we think about the man and his muse.
It's hard not to envision Thompson pulling up to the picket lines outside of the Puerto Rican paper where Depp's Kemp works, his novice knowledge about to be put to the test. It's also not difficult to see the eventual gonzo glory of the man in the slovenly scope of Ribisi's Moberg. Indeed, the three main journalists in The Rum Diary end up playing like a reflection of Thompson's many personas - the naive newbie, the seasoned vet, and the idiosyncratic icon. Tossing them into a tale involving land/lease speculation, carnal lust, local anger, and personal growth turns what could have been generic into a real treat. Depp is especially good at walking the fine line between Raoul Duke and something more sane. He has many of the same Fear and Loathing mannerisms and line deliveries, but he turns Kemp into a true greenhorn, unable to see the forest for the many miniature alcohol bottle trees. Toward the end, as his passion and sense of rebellion is growing, we get more of Oscar Zeta Acosta's favorite client. But the journey toward confrontation is made all the more meaningful because this is not a sequel or prequel.
Even better, the criminally underrated Robinson proves why he should be allowed creative carte blanche with any project he deems worthy of taking on. After the limited appeal of Jennifer 8 back in 1992, the man responsible for the imminently quotable Withnail and its spiritual partner, How to Get Ahead in Advertising disappeared from theaters, choosing instead to concentrate on writing. A series of screenplays for others and some celebrated novels later, it's great to have him back behind the lens. This movie oozes authenticity, instantly recalling the way the world looked and felt five decades ago. It also has the necessary stylistic turns that make the otherwise ordinary story soar. The Run Diary is all about contrasts - drunk and sober, beautiful and ugly, rich and poor, dark and light. In keeping with such a theme, Robinson often uses the sundrenched backdrop to illuminate (and sometimes, hide) his characters. Everything feels hot and sticky, and the results make us aware of the natural as well as unnatural issues involved. As art, The Rum Diary works much better than it does as anything else. It's exemplary for reasons that explain its eventual failure as a commercial comedy.
When the film was screened for critics, many in the audience complained that the projectionist was clearly saving on light bulb life, the image was so dark and often indeterminate. Well, that's apparently part of Robinson's planned design, because the Blu-ray features similarly dim, underlit moments. While not as bad as on the big screen, the 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 encode does offer such suspect sequences. The rest of the 1.85: 1 transfer is terrific, however, clean and crisp with none of the defects we expect from a lower budget offering. The colors are powerful and present, and the details (like Ribisi's nauseating facial stubble) come across with ease. Overall, the picture is good and clearly represents Robinson's vision for his film.
The English DTS-HD MA 5.1 mix is magnificent, providing a nice level of ambience and spatial representation throughout. Dialogue is easy to understand and always kept to the front, while ancillary noises and random sound effects fill out the remaining speakers. The score, by Christopher Young, eschews his usual Goth gloom to go full bore into space age bachelor pad jazziness. The channels have a great time with his island breeze backdrop.
Sadly, the one thing fans of the filmmaker would love to hear is nowhere to be found. There is no audio commentary offered, which is unfortunate considering the rarity of Robinson's efforts behind the lens. Still, there are a couple of behind the scenes featurettes which do illustrate the project's troubled past. A Voice of Ink and Rage: Inside the Rum Diary is a mostly EPK experience, the various members of the cast and crew interviewed arguing fervently for this obvious labor of love. The Rum Diary Back-Story is more interesting, since it offers Thompson himself (in archival material) mounting an attempt to bring the book to the big screen. Some of the sequences - like the Hollywood pitch meeting - are painful in their pretense.
Though it doesn't live up to the unhinged brilliance of Gilliam's take on Thompson, Bruce Robinson and the cast of The Rum Diary have nothing to be ashamed of. While a lesser bit of gonzo, it's still a great a revealing effort. Easily earning a Highly Recommended rating, it warrants consideration for everything it does right, as well as all the possible pitfalls it avoided along the way. While Thompson is never going to be the film medium's favorite source, his words resonate with a kind of power that should reach beyond the befuddled mainstream. Here, the movie aimed for a kind of elite everyman-ism, and failed. The film is still amazing, it's just not the turning point in the late gonzo journalist's conversion to a sustainable household name.