While Bruce Robinson is best known as the creative force behind Withnail & I, his film career spans four decades. Today, Robinson is known primarily as a director and screenwriter, but he was initially focused more on acting. Most notably, his early works include a major role in Francois Truffaut’s The Story of Adele H in 1975. It was after spending nearly a decade out of work from the late ‘70s to the mid ‘80s that Robinson’s career as a writer and a director took off. Still, since that time, his output has been limited. After writing and directing a series of movies, including his most famous film, Withnail & I, in the mid to the early 90s, he drops off the radar until reappearing to write a couple of movies in 1998 and 1999. He again disappears before writing and directing The Rum Diary in 2011.
Robinson’s films vary in genre from comedy to thriller to historical epic, but they feature some commonalities. For the most part, his films feature a respect and fascination with chaos and anarchic behavior. His characters are often outsiders struggling to deal with the insane world around them through a combination of righteous anger, cynicism, drugs, and alcohol. Robinson is clearly a talented writer. Whether the films themselves are successful or not, the prose uttered on screen are often lyrical and playful particularly early in his career. When he’s acting as both writer and director, one can feel Robinson’s hand behind every line of dialogue.
Still, watching a good chunk of Robinson’s filmography brings to the fore the fact that he peaked early. He’s made some decent movies, but has never recaptured the success of The Killing Fields and Withnail & I, which launched his career in the mid-1980s. One gets the sense from his later movies that he’s forever trying to recapture the secret sauce that made those two films such enduring classics. Hopefully one of these days Robinson will be given the chance to shine again.
The Killing Fields [Roland Joffé, 1984]
Bruce Robinson’s first major job, as the screenwriter for Roland Joffe directed The Killing Fields, is also one of his most successful. This movie, about a Cambodian journalist [Haing S. Ngor] and his American journalist friend [Sam Waterston] during the rise of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge was a critical success in its day. It earned Robinson his only Academy Award nomination, for best adapted screenplay. Watched today, the film illuminates the half-forgotten [at least in the U.S.] atrocities of a bygone era in vivid detail. Over three decades after it was filmed, The Killing Fields is still an entertaining, moving, and deeply disturbing epic. While it’s often hard to disentangle the work of a screenwriter from his team, this film clearly exhibits some features common to Robinson. Like many of his future works, the film features a group of rebellious outsiders in an anarchic environment. Furthermore, despite its heavy subject matter, the film maintains some humor, much to its credit. One also has to imagine that it’s at least partially due his success with this film that he was allowed to make Withnail & I soon afterward.
How to Get Ahead in Advertising [Bruce Robinson, 1989]
On his second outing as writer/director, Bruce Robinson again teamed up with Withnail & I costar Richard E. Grant. The film centers around an existential crisis faced by an up and coming London advertising executive [Richard E. Grant] who can’t come up with a suitable advertising campaign for pimple cream. The film takes a surreal turn when he’s increasingly tortured by a vulgar and evil talking boil growing out of his shoulder. It’s even crazier than it sounds. In some sense, though, it’s of a piece with Withnail & I. Both films feature an underlying current of anger at the state of the world expressed in flowing prose and anarchic action. In many ways, the protagonist of this film feels like a variant of Withnail. Both films define what it means to be a Bruce Robinson film. Despite their similarity, though, How to Get Ahead in Advertising while funny in parts, doesn’t recreate the magic of Withnail & I. Anyone who enjoyed Withnail is likely to enjoy this film, even if they don’t find it nearly as memorable.
Jennifer 8 [Bruce Robinson, 1992]
For his third film as writer/director, Bruce Robinson changes everything up. He leaves the realm of comedy in favor of the thriller. He leaves England for the United States, and works with Andy Garcia, an established actor by this time, and a young Uma Thurman. While it’s commendable that he’s trying out something new, the results of his effort are decidedly mixed. Jennifer 8 follows a recently divorced Los Angeles detective John Berlin [Andy Garcia] as he tries to catch a serial killer that targets blind women. In the process, he falls in love with Helena [Uma Thurman], a young blind woman who is part of his investigation. The plot itself unfolds in a conventional fashion. Nothing makes this film stand out except for the sometimes overly-elaborate dialog. It seems that Robinson’s hyper-verbal style, even when pared back as it is here, doesn’t work in a more realistic setting like that presented in Jennifer 8. The result is a film packed with dialog that feels artificial for no reason.
Return to Paradise [Joseph Ruben, 1998]
Of all the films featured on this filmography, Return to Paradise feels the least like a Bruce Robinson movie. It does, in parts, feature the kind of anarchic lifestyle that he has an affinity with, but in general, doesn’t have the snappy, formal dialog that distinguishes many of his other movies. The film centers around a moral dilemma for Sheriff, played by a young Vince Vaughn, who must decide whether to spend three years in a Malaysian jail to prevent his friend’s execution. The early scenes of the film, which take place in South East Asia, have some flavor or a Robinson film, but once it’s in full swing takes on a sort of corporate sheen. Frankly, this film could have been written by anyone. In the end, Return to Paradise feels like a perfectly well constructed and weighty, if utterly forgettable drama. Perhaps this is because he didn’t direct the film. More likely, the fact that Robinson’s original script was revised by Wesley Strick, the writer of the Cape Fear remake, has something to do with it. Apparently, the revisions were major enough that Strick received a co-screenwriter credit.
The Rum Diary [Bruce Robinson, 2011]
For his most recent outing as writer/director, Bruce Robinson returns to familiar territory: anarchic comedy, copious amounts of drinking, and a dose of surrealism. In The Rum Diary, based on a Hunter S. Thompson novel, out-of-work author Paul Kemp [Johnny Depp] moves to San Juan, Puerto Rico to take a job at a failing newspaper. Over the course of the movie, he gets mixed up in a variety of shenanigans including a real estate scam, a love affair with the fiancé [Amber Heard] of the mastermind behind the real estate scam [Aaron Eckhart], cock fighting, and, of course, lots and lots of rum. This film feels like Robinson’s attempt to recapture the magic of some of his earlier films. It features the kind of chaos that he revels in along with very precise and heightened dialog. Unfortunately, he doesn’t succeed. If anything, The Rum Diary feels like a faint echo of the distinctive voice that he pioneered in Withnail & I almost thirty years earlier.