A film review by Craig J. Koban November 3, 2011

THE RUM DIARY jj

2011, R, 119 mins.

 

Kemp: Johnny Depp / Sanderson: Aaron Eckhart / Sala: Michael Rispoli / Chenault: Amber Heard / Lotterman: Richard Jenkins / Moburg: Giovanni Ribisi

Written and directed by Bruce Robinson, based on the novel by Hunter S. Thompson.

I imagine that a documentary about the history of the making of THE RUM DIARY would have been more compelling and involving than the actual film adaptation of Hunter S. Thompson’s literary source material.  I imagine this because the film has had such an intriguing developmental road to the silver screen and the resulting product is a disappointingly muddled and meandering affair.  THE RUM DIARY is a sort of aimless, overlong, episodic, and largely unfulfilling appropriation of Thompson’s semi-autobiographical book, which is sad considering the talent on board. 

The story of its production woes, though, now that’s intriguing.  We all know the almost iconic image of Thompson as the take-no-bull-shit writer, journalist, and habitual alcohol and drug user.  After many failed attempts at breaking into journalism, Thompson moved to San Juan, Puerto Rico where he wished to work for the San Juan Star.  He was turned down.  This experience spilled over into one of his earliest novels, THE RUM DIARY, written in the early 60’s when the writer was just 22-years-old.  In the book he took the guise of an alter ego, Paul Kemp, that does manage to get a job as a Star reporter and, in the process, gets involved with the dastardly plans of an American lands developer and even manages to woe his lover.  Some have called THE RUM DIARY a wish-fulfillment fantasy for Thompson; I see what they mean. 

This brings us to Johnny Depp, who has a history with Thompson, especially having made 1998’s FEAR AND LOATHING IN LAS VEGAS.  For nearly a decade Depp has been attempting to see THE RUM DIARY to the big screen, especially after he was an instrumental force in getting the novel itself published in 1998.  Through a series of setbacks, Depp’s production company, Infinitum Nihil, finally got the project started under the auspicious directorial hand of Bruce Robinson, who made the cult classic WITHNAIL AND I in 1987.  THE RUM DIARY was his first film in over twenty years (after the thriller JENNIFER 8), but the writer/director was battling his own sobriety issues while adapting the script (he apparently drank a bottle of alcohol a day until he finished it).  Nonetheless, he sobered up, shot the film, and it sat for two years until finally being released. 

This entire lengthy prologue about the behind-the-scenes of the making of THE RUM DIARY serves to illustrate, I think, how much more interested in it I am than the resulting film.  The source material most certainly is an early work of Thompson and most definitely should not be considered in the upper pantheon of his catalogue.  Furthermore, I’m sure that Thompson was trying to evoke his own booze-induced and hazy perspective on life and society at the time, which is indicative of the disjointed narrative contained within his book.  So, on those levels, the disorganized and cluttered narrative façade of the film version of THE RUM DIARY is accurate to his source.   

Yet, it is the film’s very unfinished and staccato feel that holds it back from feeling like a uniformly decent whole.  Its story comes off as half baked and lacking resolution, it skips from one unrelated scene to the next without a clear delineation of how it fits into the bigger picture, and, most crucially, there’s no real person of interest to root for in this film.  You have either corrupt capitalists looking to screw over anyone to make a buck, SOB newspaper editors, or journalists that are so hopelessly high and drunk half the time that you have to remind yourself that they’re the protagonists.   

At least main star Johnny Depp is as compulsively engaging as ever here playing his second Thompson stand-in character of Kemp.  He arrives in San Juan in hopes of getting the San Juan Star job, which he gets very easily from its editor (played with juicy scenery chewing glee by the typically reserved Richard Jenkins) because he’s the only applicant.  His boss does have concerns over his sobriety, to which Kemp dutifully replies that his drinking is only at “the upper ends of social.”  As he gets acclimatized to his new job, Kemp becomes close friends with Sala (the great Michael Rispoli, playing a very amiable slob), who makes cash on the side…in cock fighting.  Kemp also meets an ex-journalist named Moburg (Giovanni Ribisi, a perverse marvel here) who perhaps is too constantly stoned and inebriated to be even alive half the time.   

 

 

Kemp may be an upper social end drunkard, but he’s an ambitious writer looking to find his voice and be heard.  This catches the attention of a local land developer named Sanderson (Aaron Eckhart, so good at playing calculating and falsely pleasant a-holes) who wants Kemp to pen some favorable press about the big deal he’s putting together.  Kemp is easily seduced by Sanderson’s luxuriously affluent lifestyle and is perhaps even more drawn in by his sensuous trophy mistress, Chenault (Amber Heard, more than fulfilling her role’s quotient of raw sex appeal).  When he’s not getting in deep by falling for his employer’s main squeeze, Kemp slowly uncovers what kind of businessman Sanderson really is, which complicates his working relationship with him that much further.   

There are two things that I admired in THE RUM DIARY: Firstly, Depp seems tailor made and born to inhabit anything conjured up by his Gozno journalist muse, even if it means playing thinly disguised versions of the actual man.   I liked how Depp is an actor not driven by movie star vanity and plays Kemp as the slurring, monotone, spaced-out, and frequently in-over-his-head journalist as presented (this might be the least glamorized presentation of a newsman ever).  When Depp is on screen we always take notice and are engaged.  Secondly, the film is punctuated by a gritty location aesthetic through and through as it captures both the seedy squalor of its 1960’s San Juan streets, apartments, and bars alongside its beautifully picturesque and lush beaches.  THE RUM DIARY, paradoxically enough, is both fascinatingly gorgeous and ugly as a visual experience. 

Alas, the problems with the film, as mentioned, are several.  It’s too long and congested at two hours and the central conflict between Sanderson and Kemp takes too long to develop and then is left completely unresolved by the film’s conclusion (films this long should not conclude themselves with lazy title cards explaining what has happened).  The central romance between Kemp and Chenault is routinely undeveloped and lacks closure (it’s also not helped by the fact that Heard – although looking the part – can’t really hold her own with the more talented Depp).   And then there is the film’s ambitious, but largely messy theme of American capitalist greed and hubris looking to defraud Puerto Rico by taking natural beach front property and turning it into resort hotel hot spots.  There is a kernel of an invigorating idea here about the tenuous relationship between natives of Puerto Rico and American investors, but it too, like the rest of the film, seems only half-baked.   

Finally, there’s the issue of Kemp himself, who starts off the film as a hollow, selfish, undisciplined, and self-destructing boozer that morphs into a brave crusader of the Puerto Rican people that will fight the financial motives of the Yankee “bastards.”  Depp is consistently credible in the role of Kemp, but the character’s transformation in the film is not; he becomes who he is late in the film because the screenplay allows it and not because it’s a natural and plausible progression for the man.  THE RUM DAIRY wants to approach greatness much of the time, and there are instances where it does (see the scene that shows the after effects of an ocular-administered drug that Kemp and Sala gleefully take), but the whole resulting film fails to register as a complete and satisfying package.  I found myself just deeply disinterested in the film as it sputtered from one set piece to the next.  

Like its frequently intoxicated protagonist, THE RUM DIARY is just not all there.

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