Sunday, September 16, 2012

The Rum Diary

I have always enjoyed Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.  Terry Gilliam's bizarre visuals blew me away as a youngster and Johnny Depp's penchant for weirdness was still the defining aspect of his career (remember, this was pre-effeminate-pirate Depp).  While watching the Criterion Collection for F&LiLV, I got to learn a bit about the behind-the-scenes friendship that was formed between Depp and Hunter S. Thompson, F&L's author and the basis for Depp's character.  It's an interesting collection of extras, with Thompson's incomprehensible commentary track and Depp reading his correspondence to Hunter as the primary highlights.   I also learned that Thompson emits random squeals in the middle of conversations and then continues as if nothing had happened; this was so amusing to me and my friends that we nicknamed my car (which frequently had loose belts) "Hunter."
A car only slightly more reliable than my Hunter

The Rum Diary was announced back in 2000, but was stuck in development hell for more than a decade before its eventual release in October 2011.  In the intervening decade, stars dropped in and out of the project, with Johnny Depp being the only constant.  When Thompson died in 2005 (with Depp funding the utterly ridiculous project to disperse his cremains), I was worried that this film would never be made.  When it came out, though, I was worried for a different reason.  Given Hunter's recent passing, The Rum Diary might have become sentimental and not stay true to the bizarre Hunter S. style.  I didn't hear much buzz about the movie, so I waited to watch it, fearing that I may have been right.  For once.

The Rum Diaries follows the exploits of journalist and obvious Hunter S. Thompson analogue Paul Kemp (Johnny Depp) in the late 1950s.  Kemp has traveled to Puerto Rico for a job on a San Juan newspaper, where he is quickly introduced to a few well-known local facts.  First of all, the newspaper is floundering and will probably shut down in a matter of weeks.  Second, Puerto Rico at this time was sharply split between extreme poverty and an American upper-class of robber barons.  Third, and most important of all, Puerto Rico was an easy place to lose yourself in drugs and booze.
...although finding yourself again ain't always pretty
In this environment, Kemp manages to stumble his way into some interesting situations that test his morals.  Yes, he loves being a worthless drunk and taking hallucinogens, but he still wants to accomplish something...although he's not sure just what that may be yet.  He sees where his path can lead him --- toward the hazy rage of his friend/fellow degenerate, Moberg (Giovanni Ribisi), or into ambivalence, like his other journalist pal, Sala (Michael Rispoli) --- and he doesn't seem determined to avoid that fate.  He also (improbably) falls in with a powerful and obscenely wealthy crowd, thanks to a smooth-talking realtor named Sanderson (Aaron Eckhart).  There, he sees and hears many things, and he realizes how easy it would be to do some very bad things and become very wealthy.  At its core, The Rum Diary has less to do with being drunk on rum (although that is a significant part) and more on a young writer trying to figure out what he wants to become.
Above: scene from an earlier, more depressing, version of Moulin Rouge

The acting in The Rum Diary is good.  If you have seen Johnny Depp in Fear and Loathing, there might not be a lot new to see here, but if you haven't, then Depp's immersion in his character is pretty impressive.  This isn't just a Hunter S. Thompson impression, mind you (check out this clip to see how good of an impression it is), it is a fairly complex performance that achieves its goals through monologue overdubs and quiet moments.  Depp is at his most entertaining here when he is being over the top, but his best work is when he is playing up the drama. 
Visual clues: frowny face vs. googly eyes and open mouth
Aaron Eckhart was a great choice to play a yuppie villain.  I thought he was very convincing as a smooth sonuvabitch who got ruthless as soon as his profit/loss balance became unfavorable in any situation.  Michael Rispoli was pretty good as Kemp's main drinking buddy, but he wasn't all that interesting as a character.  Giovanni Ribisi was far more entertaining as a unpredictable drunkard, but his weird voice was a little off-putting.
Unlike his habit of listening to Hitler's speeches on vinyl
Richard Jenkins did a respectable job with a pretty straightforward supporting role.  There were a few other recognizable faces in the cast, including Marshall Bell and Amaury Nolasco in small parts and Amber Heard as Kemp's love interest.  This is, far and away, the best work I have seen from Heard to date.  She was more than just a pretty face here, she was sympathetic and sexy.  Granted, that isn't asking a lot from a professional Hollywood actress, but it was light years beyond what I've seen her in prior to this.
"Hell, yeah, I earned a C+!"

The Rum Diary was written for the screen and directed by Bruce Robinson, and was his first film work in about a decade.  I thought he directed the film well enough.  It has a sleazy, grimy feel to it that was rather fitting.  He didn't coax out any great performances out of this cast, though, and that surprised me; with characters this eccentric, I would have thought someone would go balls-to-the-wall weird, but they never got much further than "peculiar." 
Ribisi earns a runner-up prize, though
That may have been affected by the overall story, though.  This film is missing a sense of purpose.  That, in and of itself, is not necessarily a bad thing.  Unfortunately, the characters are not charming enough to make you forget that the story doesn't seem to be going anywhere.  If you've read any Hunter S. Thompson, you might recognize that aimlessness as a common theme in his fiction; he eventually gets around to making a point, but the characters are so bizarre and goofy that they're fun to follow, regardless of intent.  Sadly, The Rum Diary is lacking in the fun department, which makes the meandering plot just frustrating.
"You don't want to see me stumble around drunk for two hours?"

The Rum Diary was written at least a decade before Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, so it's not surprising that the tone and the requisite Hunter S. Thompson-ish character are significantly different in each.  I wish I could stop comparing the two (I suppose I could bring up Where the Buffalo Roam instead), but the two are definitely connected.  As the film comes to a close, the audience starts to realize that this Puerto Rico vacation is what prompted Kemp Thompson to develop his aggressive style of journalism, so he could be a royal pain in the ass of all the bastards he loathed.  But then it ends.  The goal is Thompson finding his writing voice, and that's not a satisfying enough ending for a film that felt lost in its own winding plot.  What does he do with this new-found ability?  Does he dish out sweet justice?  Not really.  The means, in this case, wind up being the end...of the story. 

Getting back to my original worries regarding this film, I think it does suffer from too much nostalgia.  It's competently made, and there are some pretty entertaining bits here and there, but it lacks purpose and passion.  More importantly, it fails to pass on the righteous indignation of its main characters.  If the point of making this movie is to show Hunter S. Thompson's transformation from a fairly regular person to the oddball that he became famous for, then I suppose it is somewhat successful.  It's just not as entertaining to watch as it would be to try and reenact (the rum and women parts, anyway).

No comments:

Post a Comment