Rum Diary, The (Review)

(10/28/11; Comedy, Drama)
Johnny Depp, Aaron Eckhart, Michael Rispoli, Amber Heard, Richard Jenkins, Giovanni Ribisi
SCR: Bruce Robinson, based on The Rum Diary by Hunter S. Thompson
DIR: Bruce Robinson
MPAA: R for language, brief drug use and sexuality.
2 hours
(GK Films)

In 1998, Johnny Depp starred in the drug-fueled opus Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, based on the novel by legendary gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson. Depp and Thompson would become good friends, and while working on Loathing, Depp unearthed a box containing an unfinished manuscript for a book called The Rum Diary.

It was Thompson’s first attempt at writing the Great American Novel, based on his coming-of-age working for a small newspaper in Puerto Rico in 1959. The book was eventually finished, a fitting finale to the tale’s 40-year journey and a fitting coda to Thompson’s incendiary oeuvre.

The Rum Diary is filled with possibility, with the desire to write stories and change the world. It has an optimistic stream throughout, even while evil capitalists solidify the young writer’s worldview to fight corruption and “get the bastards.”

This background is worth noting to understand where the film version of The Rum Diary fails. It’s the story of a young artist finding his voice, wooed by a beautiful woman, and deciding that standing up to corruption is the only worthy position to take. Reading Thompson’s work, one gets the impression that taking the bastards down wasn’t just a hobby, it was his prime directive. He was a literary Superman fighting for truth, justice and the American way.

There are only glimpses of that character arc here. Depp plays a hard-partying American freelance journalist named Paul Kemp who takes a job at the Puerto Rican rag The San Juan Star. But despite what he’s called in the movie, everyone knows he’s playing a young Thompson, a point made all the more apparent when you realize he’s playing the same character he played in Fear and Loathing, albeit with less hair and more drugs there.

Kemp is wooed by smooth-taking filthy-rich businessman Sanderson, (Eckahrt), who wants him to write flattering things about a corrupt hotel development deal that’s about to go down on a remote island.

Sanderson’s reach becomes apparent when he comes to Kemp’s rescue in a politically-impossible situation, but it’s still not enough to convince the writer that greed is good. Besides, Kemp is taken with Chenault, Sanderson’s sultry but vacant fiancée (Heard), who first appears out of nowhere taking a midnight swim.

There are comedic asides with his two pals from the paper – stocky, pragmatic Bob Salas (Rispoli) and the wiry, unhinged Moberg (Ribisi). The latter’s physicality is incredible, his body constantly fighting to stay balanced from taking so many drugs. He lopes through life, and even offers the occasional worthwhile contribution. But he’s a guy who knows his days are numbered and is willing to spend the rest of them blazed out of his mind.

There are a few sequences that are memorable because they are simply outrageous: people blowing flames from high octane alcohol, the result of two guys having to lap ride in order to drive a car; and then there’s the loopy visit to a voodoo witch doctor. But what’s remarkable about the film is exactly how unremarkable it is.

The velocity of Thompson’s dialogue – some of it lifted verbatim from the novel – really needed visuals there were similarly larger than life. The muted color scheme and flat point-and-shoot variety was probably a conscious choice, but it was the wrong one. I never felt the heat of Puerto Rico, never felt the danger of untouchable millionaires, never cared during the out-of-nowhere sequence in which Chenault decides to stay and party in a potentially dangerous environment.

The Rum Diary is a diamond in the rough, a potentially potent tale depicting on of America’s most important voices, guided (and produced) by one of Hollywood’s biggest stars, and it still just kind of sits there.

Maybe it’s because Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, directed by Terry Gilliam, was presented in such a wildly-visceral way. Say what you will about Gilliam’s colorful opus, but it’s considered a classic. Sure, it’s defiantly divisive but so was Thompson. And the movie was noteworthy enough to inspire one of the craftier visual jokes in the animated film Rango (2011). I doubt The Rum Diary will be similarly celebrated.


Author: Dennis Willis

Dennis Willis is an award-winning producer, TV host, producer, director, editor (he preferred Avid until a torrid affair with Adobe Premiere, and the rest is history), author and film critic (print and radio). Dennis produced and hosted the TV programs Reel Life, FilmTrip, Soundwaves (1983-2008) and produces the annual Soundwaves Xmas program. He is currently the film critic on KGO Radio in San Francisco, and a member of both the San Francisco Film Critics Circle and the Broadcast Film Critics Association.

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