Sunday, November 6, 2011

Bruce Robinson: Gonzo Shenanigans (The Rum Diary)

Giovanni Ribisi, Johnny Depp, and Michael Rispoli, The Rum Diary, Film District, 2011.

The spirited insanity of Hunter S. Thompson ideally met its match in director Terry Gilliam's 90s masterpiece Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas. So why, many faithful might ask, would they risk a pseudo-sequel, prequel of sorts, based on another novel by the great American journalist cum novelist. The Rum Diary is one of the late Thompson's most revered works, so at least Johnny Depp is reprising his role as alter-ego.

What we must comprehend is that this is no direct sequel, and so audiences must not come expecting the Gilliam fever hallucination. Talented if scarce writer-director Bruce Robinson divests little of himself, yet holds together the entire affair, with more than a little help from Depp's inspired performance, always a little sad at the corners, homaging his real life buddy Thompson. Robinson, another eccentric Brit auteur, albeit almost forgotten, after breaking through with two brilliant pictures in the late 80s, Withnail & I (1987) and How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying (1989), adroitly recreates an era in time, with dreamy images thanks to Darius Wolski and an upbeat score by Christopher Young complementing the proceedings.

Although it does portray severe alcoholism, Robinson keeps the spirit of the thing afloat. It literally glides along, effervescent, with little pieces of pleasure. The superb cast, headed by Aaron Eckhart, Michael Rispoli, Giovanni Ribisi, Richard Jenkins and Amber Heard, all commingle with ease, and are allowed to shine in their own peculiar ways.

I went in expecting something different from the zany surrealism of Terry Gilliam. What I discovered was a harmless, good entertainment, highlighted by style and great acting. How this well done picture ended up being dismissed and flopping, we'll never know.

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