The Rum Diary
Details: (M), 120 mins, In Cinemas 15 March 2012, United States, English
Synopsis: Based on the debut novel by Hunter S. Thompson, The Rum Diary tells the increasingly unhinged story of itinerant journalist Paul Kemp (Johnny Depp). Tiring of the noise and madness of New York and the crushing conventions of late Eisenhower-era America, Kemp travels to the pristine island of Puerto Rico to write for a local newspaper, The San Juan Star, run by downtrodden editor Lotterman (Richard Jenkins). Adopting the rum-soaked life of the island, Paul soon becomes obsessed with Chenault (Amber Heard), the wildly attractive Connecticut-born fiancée of Sanderson (Aaron Eckhart). Sanderson, a businessman involved in shady property development deals, is one of a growing number of American entrepreneurs who are determined to convert Puerto Rico into a capitalist paradise in service of the wealthy. When Kemp is recruited by Sanderson to write favorably about his latest unsavory scheme, the journalist is presented with a choice: to use his words for the corrupt businessmen’s financial benefit, or use them to take the bastards down.
Funny Hunter S. Thompson tribute lacks author's bite.
Hunter S. Thompson once wrote “When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro”. I first read that when I was a teen and had no idea what it meant. But, like so much of Thompson’s stuff, it was an imponderable, memorable, semi-wise sounding aphorism that, like a mean hangover, would not go away.
For what’s it worth, after watching Bruce Robinson’s film adaptation of Thompson’s second novel, The Rum Diary, I think I have a clue now what the famous Gonzo writer may have intended. Or to put it another way, I felt like Robinson found his own interpretation and it’s one that makes sense.
Wordy, boozy, quite funny, somewhat distended and rambling, The Rum Diary has got a smart charm about it. One of its distinct pleasures is its dialogue. Robinson wrote one of the best, funniest and saddest movies of the ‘80s, Withnail and I (1987), about two loser/actors on a bender in the dying days of 1969. The ‘60s, booze and one-liner brilliance play a part in The Rum Diary, too. Robinson would seem a perfect fit for the material, and apparently he originated some of this movie’s best lines. He’s got a gift for taking outrageously artificial dialogue and making it play so it sounds perfectly natural. Though, at best, The Rum Dairy has only a muted power. It’s got the mood of Thompson, but not his rage. Maybe it’s because Johnny Depp’s Paul Kemp (Thompson’s alter-ego) spends the movie in a bleary daze. Like its star, the movie staggers from vignette to semi-climax, looking for a final showdown. Still, as Thompson might say, it’s a real trip.
The book was semi-autobiographical. In 1960, Thompson, still only in his 20s, his journalistic ambitions withering, found himself in Puerto Rico looking for writing work, following a track record of career false-starts, insubordination, and self-claimed “weirdness” (Thompsonesque for eccentric, borderline anti-social activity). The place was a playground for the American moneyed elite. It was a toxic blend of poverty, mercenary meanness and smoldering social rebellion. The novel wasn’t published until 1998. Legend has it that Depp, a pal of Thompson’s, found the manuscript, saw a movie in it and convinced him to publish it. (The film is dedicated to Thompson who shot himself dead in 2005.) I haven’t read the novel, but I understand it had violence and a certain seething anger (a keystone of Thompson’s style) directed at the callous, careless, ruthless liars of the universe who exploit, debase and corrupt.
To be sure, the film has a seedy glamour that’s kind of fun; shot on grainy Super 16, the film looks like a Sinatra/swing era album cover brought to life. And Depp does a great version of Thompson, but I’d have to qualify that. Thompson’s prose has a bruising, bullish quality, a part of what makes it hilarious. Depp’s Kemp has a kind of wide-eyed disdain and a feel for irony, but he’s a long way from being a tough talker or a hard case. Through most of the movie he’s standing back, observing and watching the action swirl around him.
At the beginning of the film, Kemp lands in San Juan for a job interview at the English language paper The San Juan Star. One look at the grubby offices and the cranky, put-upon editor, played by the always great Richard Jenkins, and we know the gig is a loser (you can nearly smell the decay and sweat). Kemp gets the job mostly because he’s the only applicant. It quickly becomes apparent that The Star is sinking under the influence of rich Americans like Hal Sanderson (Aaron Eckhart), whose real-estate deals are nothing more than scams that rob the locals of their birth-right and despoil the natural beauty of the environment. To make matters worse, Thompson has no mojo. “I don’t know how to write like me,” he admits right from the start.
Kemp, so recessive and alienated, makes for a passive movie hero and that creates a slow-burn rhythm; it feels like at times the movie is staggering to a complete halt. Still, scene-to-scene the film has a compelling vibe mostly because Depp’s Kemp has a couple of characters to hang out with who provide the Thompsonisms and one-liners. There’s the cynical quip-a-minute Bob Sala (Michael Rispoli) the Star’s photographer, and a writer called Moberg (Giovanni Ribisi, in the movie’s best performance) who refuses to accept that the Star has fired him. Between the booze and the conversation, Kemp pursues, sort of, Sanderson’s fiancé, Chenault (Amber Heard).
But the point of the movie isn’t to do with the agony of the self-knowing subject or how ‘artists’ and writers torture themselves. It’s about a writer trying to find a ‘voice’. Ultimately, Kemp attacks Sanderson and his cohorts, but only in print and that turns out to be both brave and foolish. But perhaps that’s not the point. Taking a position on, well, any subject in this mood of conformism is ‘weird’ – as in idiosyncratic, challenging, a tad rebellious, maverick. By the time the film reaches its strange, somewhat sad climax, Kemp is emboldened with a new refined and courageous sensibility. That is, he’s got something to say, and he’s learned to be true to himself. He exits the movie a little stranger and weirder and a pro.
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