These are, at last, exhilarating times for Bruce Robinson. In the 26 years since his extraordinary debut, Withnail & I, the writer and director has withdrawn almost entirely from films after the grim experiences of his post-Withnail projects.
THE RUM DIARY
DIRECTED BY Bruce Robinson
STARRING Johnny Depp, Michael Rispoli, Aaron Eckhart
OPENS NOVEMBER 11 // CERT 15 // 119 MINS
These are, at last, exhilarating times for Bruce Robinson. In the 26 years since his extraordinary debut, Withnail & I, the writer and director has withdrawn almost entirely from films after the grim experiences of his post-Withnail projects. Robinson’s last significant film work was a cameo in Clement and LeFrenais’ 1998 rock comedy, Still Crazy. There, he was required to play a reclusive, burned-out rock star – a character many incorrectly assumed wasn’t too far from Robinson himself. “I’ve got a reputation as this mad figure,” he once told me. “Full of vitriol and red wine, prancing round London, roaring through the Groucho Club high on cocaine.”
In fact, Robinson has spent much of the last 13 years living quietly on the Welsh borders, writing a novel, 1998’s The Peculiar Memoirs Of Thomas Penman, and more recently two children’s books. He’s been coaxed back into active filmmaking by Johnny Depp – a Withnail fan – to adapt and direct The Rum Diary, based on Hunter Thompson’s experiences as a young journalist in Puerto Rico in 1960. As you’d hope from the creator of Withnail, there is plenty of scope for hilarious sequences involving savage drinking. The prevailing vibe is sweaty and hungover: everything is covered in an oily film of perspiration. Robinson, Depp and Thompson are an agreeable if tipsy combination.
Depp’s Paul Kemp (Thompson’s alter ego) arrives in Puerto Rico to take up a job at the San Juan Star, an ailing English language paper staffed by aimless, drunken ex-pats. Among them, he befriends rotund photographer Bob Sala (Michael Rispoli) and the “hygienically unacceptable” Moberg (Giovanni Ribisi) – the paper’s crime and religious affairs correspondent. Ribisi pitches Moberg somewhere between Richard E Grant’s cadaverous Withnail and Dustin Hoffman’s sickly Ratso Rizzo in Midnight Cowboy. Rispoli’s bear-like Sala, meanwhile, is a genial sidekick with a profitable sideline in cockfighting. While watching dissolute men drinking heroically in a run-down flat ticks a number of boxes for Withnail fans, The Rum Diary also has a plot, concerning the real estate scams of Aaron Eckhart’s rapacious property developer, and Kemp’s growing infatuation with Eckhart’s girlfriend, Amber Head.
Depp’s played an analogue of Thompson before, of course – Raoul Duke in Terry Gilliam’s hyper-stylised Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas. But essentially, The Rum Diary is Hunter: The Early Years, with Depp gradually introducing Kemp to his Gonzo during the film. We are given early glimpses of the kind of acerbic commentary for which Thompson would become famous: “There is no American Dream,” he spits, “just a piss puddle of greed spreading out through the world.”