The problem with the new, little-seen Johnny Depp film isn't that it appeals only to a cult audience—it's that it lacks the personality that allowed that cult to form
How famous is Hunter S. Thompson? Not famous enough to sell a movie, if you believe the president of the movie studio behind The Rum Diary. A labor of love for star Johnny Depp, the adaptation of the early Thompson novel flopped last weekend at the box office, pulling in a paltry $5 million. Surveying the damage Monday, Bob Berney, FilmDistrict president of theatrical distribution, told the Hollywood Reporter, "Probably, at the end of the day, the whole Hunter thing attracts more of a cult audience. While he and Johnny were best friends and the movie is a tribute to Hunter, Hunter is still a little too extreme for the mainstream."
Berney has the right to defend his star and film, but he was wrong to blame the bad showing on the author of the book that it's based on. If "the Hunter thing" is a cult, it's an awfully big one. The drug-addled cosmic moneywrench persona Thompson created has permeated nearly every level of pop consciousness, not only through his still-cherished writing, but also as the model for "Uncle Duke” in the comic strip Doonesbury, as a superhero in DC's comic book Transmetropolitan, and on TV as the “Hunter Gathers” character from Adult Swim's show The Venture Bros. "Gonzo," the byword for his kamikaze approach to life, gave its name to a Muppet. On film, he's been portrayed by Bill Murray inWhere the Buffalo Roam and has been the subject of nearly a dozen of documentaries. Oh, and there's Johnny Depp's previous two Thompson-inspired flicks: the 1998 cult classic Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and this year's well-received animated adventure Rango. If the guy was any more mainstream, a theme park in Florida would open a Hunter S. Thompson ride called “Fear and Loathing in Orlando.”
No, Depp's cinematic mash note to the late author flopped because director Bruce Robinson couldn't decide what kind of movie he wanted to make. The Rum Diary veers wildly from a buddy picture to a slapstick comedy to a remarkably pointless romance between Depp and the luminous Amber Heard, before finally settling on a tale of ragtag underdogs fighting Evil in the person of Aaron Eckhart.
The look and feel of The Rum Diary is almost as disjointed as the story is. The screen adaptation of Fear and Loathing succeeded creatively—and, eventually, in home-viewing sales—not only because of Depp's note-perfect performance. The film worked because director Terry Gilliam made a movie that feels like an acid trip. With weird lenses and filters, with every conceivable camera gyration, and by slathering the screen in computer-generated hallucinations, Gilliam captured the searing, drug-induced hyperperceptiveness that informs Thompson's original work. With Depp reading big chunks of the author's galloping prose as voice-over narration, all the wrecked cars and trashed hotel rooms in Fear and Loathing exist within the larger context of Thompson's moral outrage. His swath of destruction represents anarchistic lashing out at betrayals of the American Dream.
Watching Robinson's film, though, feels like imbibing a different Thompson-esque substance: the movie's namesake liquor. Whether he meant to or not, Robinson captured the muddled dissipation of a rum-soaked, sunburned trip to the Caribbean. The camera seems dazed and sleepy from the tropical sun, meandering over the bleary-eyed characters who mumble, then yell, and spend half their time in shadow—including one of the most frustratingly underlit love scenes in the history of film. Save for one great moment with a talking lobster, and a rote third act with a forced climax, nothing in the movie seems to happen for very much of a reason at all.
Whatever the film's faults, the one flaw it certainly doesn't have, no matter what some film studio executive says, is an excess of Hunter's supposedly too-extreme-for-the-mainstream personality. Very much the opposite. The film falls flat precisely because it lacks Thompson's moral watchfulness, the virtue that so often led him to pull back and rise over the craziness—often, the craziness he created—to survey, preach, and eulogize. The problem with The Rum Diary, at heart, isn't that there's too much Hunter. The problem is there isn't enough.