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Bruce Robinson's (and Johnny Depp's) "The Rum Diary"

The stories behind both the novel and the film sound more engaging than the “passion-project homage” itself.

"Johnny Depp's quasi-filial bromance with Hunter S Thompson has now extended well beyond the celebrated gonzo journalist's death," writes Salon's Andrew O'Hehir, "with consequences that are a lot like the relationship itself: Strange, endearing and a little bit embarrassing. Depp personally financed and supervised the firing of Thompson's earthly remains out of a cannon at the writer's 2005 funeral, an event captured in Alex Gibney's documentary Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr Hunter S Thompson (narrated, of course, by Johnny Depp). Having played Thompson's most famous alter ego, Raoul Duke, in Terry Gilliam's psychotronic 1998 version of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas — a flawed film, but very much worth a second look in its recent Criterion release — Depp now returns to the Thompson well of booze and acid for a second dip."

"To get to the heart of the mess that is The Rum Diary," writes Gustavo Turner in the LA Weekly, "one needs to backtrack to the mess that was The Rum Diary, the novel Thompson began working on as a novice writer in 1960, which would not be published until 1998. The story goes something like this: In 1960, Thompson — an arrogant, violent 22-year-old from Louisville, Ky, who was convinced he was the next Hemingway — became impatient at not being instantly recognized as a literary genius in New York. He hatched a plan: He would move to Puerto Rico, get a day job as a journalist and immediately start working on a career-making novel about his experiences there, his tropical version of The Sun Also Rises." Turner then outlines the series of detours that kept Thompson from ever getting there before turning to the film at hand: "Depp's passion-project homage, which has him reciting invectives against squares in stoned, poetry-slam tones over footage of sunny locales, is less a tribute to Thompson than to the actor's own bohemian billionaire sense of cool. In contrast, Bill Murray's Gonzo avatar in 1980's Where the Buffalo Roam got to the core of the writer's sad neuroses, with a kind of sympathy that is antithetical to the Hollywood rebel continuum — Brando, Hopper, Nicholson, Penn and, of course, Depp — a coterie of cool that Thompson himself always sought for his alt version of the Rat Pack."

Depp "selected and pursued Bruce Robinson to write and direct the adaptation, even though Robinson lives on a remote farm in England and has not made a film for nearly 20 years," writes Mark Olsen in the Los Angeles Times. "Nominated for an Academy Award for his screenplay for The Killing Fields in 1984, Robinson is best known for making the eminently quotable 1987 cult fave Withnail and I as well as the savage 1989 satire How to Get Ahead in Advertising. He most recently directed the disastrously dispiriting 1992 Hollywood thriller Jennifer 8. In interviews, Depp has said that the 65-year-old came out of retirement to direct the film, but Robinson himself points out this is not wholly accurate. 'Johnny says that, and it's a bit of hyperbole in a sense because I'm a writer. I write like a fiend, every day of my life I'm writing,' Robinson said recently in Los Angeles. 'But in terms of trying to be a film director, that has some accuracy because I wasn't going to do it ever again. And very flattering and kind of curious it was to be hounded by the world's No. 1 film star.'" More interviews with Robinson: Euan Ferguson (Guardian), Meredith Melnick (Time) and DR Stewart (indieWIRE).

"Unfortunately," writes J Hoberman in the Voice, "just as The Rum Diary was conceived too early in Thompson's career for maximum oomph, Robinson's long-germinating, and for several years shelved, adaptation arrives too late in the career of the filmmaker and his star — the bacchanal is weirdly elegiac, as though once meant to be a New Hollywood vehicle for the young Elliott Gould. The party gets under way with Thompson's alter ego Kemp (played by Thompson's other alter ego Depp) coming to consciousness, having raped the minibar in a dark, trashed hotel room overlooking a glorious beach… Ugly Americans infest the bowling alley; right-wing capitalists plan vulgar resorts on the unspoiled army testing range at Vieques. Newly arrived from New York, Kemp finds an ongoing, never-exactly-explained riot outside the offices of the San Juan Star and a lunatic editor within (Richard Jenkins). Soon his lowlife colleagues, the garrulous frustrated news photographer Sala (Michael Rispoli) and brain-damaged crime writer Moburg (Giovanni Ribisi), initiate him into a round of bar-hopping and cockfighting that results in an epic trip to the slammer. Still, The Rum Diary could use a shot of the mania that fueled Terry Gilliam's Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. As deadpan as he is, Depp could use a crazed Benicio Del Toro to complement his cool."

More from Mark Asch (L), Marc Campbell (Dangerous Minds), Richard Corliss (Time), David Fear (Time Out New York, 3/5), William Goss (Playlist, B-), Jonathan Kiefer (Faster Times), Eric Kohn (indieWIRE), Ray Pride (Newcity Film), Andrew Schenker (Slant, 2/4), Matt Singer (IFC), Scott Tobias (AV Club, B-) and Stephanie Zacharek (Movieline, 8/10). And Depp talks about Thompson in Newsweek.

Updates, 10/28: "[W]here the book had grit, on-screen the grit is so pretty, you want to lick it," writes Bethany Jean Clement in the Stranger. "Depp's sunglasses look absolutely fantastic in their costarring role, and the shots of perfect, shiny convertibles driving along improbably well-paved coastal-jungle roads are breathtaking. The sanitization of the book may be for the best; its blatant sexism and racism are cushioned to be slightly less blatant, and whoever wrote all the extra dialogue did a fine job of supplying Depp with good things to put his mouth around." More from Ty Burr (Boston Globe, 2/4), Roger Ebert (Chicago Sun-Times, 2.5/4), Ben Kenigsberg (Time Out Chicago, 3/5) and AO Scott (New York Times).

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