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Entries in Rum Diary/The [2011] (1)

Saturday
Oct292011

The Rum Diary (2011)

Paradise at a Steal

There are three types of people* who will go see The Rum Diary this weekend:

1. Fans of Hunter S. Thompson, on whose second novel the movie is based

2. Fans of Johnny Depp, hungry for another over-the-top performance by the actor-turned-zany-somnambulist

3. Fans of cult director Bruce Robinson, whose last major motion picture was released nineteen years ago.

I can't speak for the Robinson crowd, but fans of Depp and Thompson may be disappointed--not that The Rum Diary is bad; it's just so fantastically different from anything its core audience is expecting that they may not appreciate the fact that this is the truest distillation of Thompson's spirit ever captured on film.

Notice, I said "spirit" and not "character". There's a huge difference between what the author stood for and how he was perceived in pop culture. The cartoon version of Thompson immortalized in Gary Trudeau's "Uncle Duke" character, or the clipped-speech, wide-eyed id of Terry Gilliam's Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (also starring Depp in the lead) are projections of what their creators perceived as the essence of Thompson, based on his books and occasional public run-ins with the law.

They paint a fun and charming portrait of--to borrow a friend's phrase--"Hunter on Drugs". But the disillusioned crusader from books like Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail '72 and the stories of The Great Shark Hunt (not to mention the essential volumes collecting Thompson's letters) has rarely made it to the big screen. Bill Murray came close in the rare, non-ridiculous moments of 1980's Where the Buffalo Roam, presenting Thompson as a not-quite-resigned writer looking back on a more optimistic time.

Which brings us, at last, to The Rum Diary. Set in 1960, the film tells the story of Paul Kemp, a stand-in for Thompson in this semi-autobiographical account of the young writer's trip to Puerto Rico. Kemp takes a job as a reporter for the failing San Juan Star and finds himself in the middle of what looks like paradise but feels like a hotbed of revolution and the last refuge of failed dreamers. His co-workers include the paper's perpetually drunk and/or stoned Culture and Religion correspondent, Moburg (Gionvanni Ribisi), and its slovenly, carefree staff photographer, Sala (Michael Rispoli).

He also encounters Sanderson (Aaron Eckhart), a former employee who's made it big as a shady land developer. It's easy to tell from his white suits, fat cigars, and luxury cars that he's up to no good. Much of The Rum Diary centers on his attempts to lure Kemp into being a covert propagandist for a consortium of bankers and military personnel who seek to buy up much of the island and convert it into a resort community that would have little use for dirty, backwards locals.

I use the word "plot" lightly. In fact, Robinson's screenplay is the first introduction of forward momentum that Thompson's story has enjoyed. Like the book, the movie is a collection of misadventures and pseudo-intrigue that paint a picture of a young man looking for a dream that he has been promised but not clearly defined. Whether engaging in car chases with hoodlums, hitting on Sanderson's May/December eye-candy, Chenault (Amber Heard), or entering a prize bird in cockfights to raise money to put out one last edition of the paper, Kemp goes on a cultural odyssey similar to that of his Fear and Loating in Las Vegas counterpart, Raoul Duke (with a good deal of crossover when it comes to attitudes about fat, obnoxious, American tourists).

Robinson also extrapolates the themes from Thompson's later, more mature work and retrofits them into The Rum Diary. The novel version of Kemp was a lost thirty-year-old, whereas Depp--clearly pushing fifty--comes off as a bit world-weary and fed up that society has not yet recognized his genius. Robinson uses the development angle to give form to Kemp's notion that there's something wrong with post-World War II America, a crack in the veneer of progress that hints at greedy, industrialist swine writhing underneath. It is through his dealings with Sanderson that Kemp finds the motivation and courage to be a crusader against those who would destroy culture in order to preserve it.

In this way, the film speaks not just to the coming racial tensions and anti-establishment ethos of the 1960s, but also to modern American woes. One need look no further than the nationwide "Occupy" movements to see the physical manifestation of our collective unconscious rising up to slam on the brakes. While watching a Nixon/Kennedy debate, Kemp bristles at "Tricky Dick's" reptilian demeanor, remarking that someday, someone will come along and make him look like a flaming liberal. Given the increasingly publicized consolidation of power at the very top in recent years, it's just as easy to take this as a knock on Barack Obama as George W. Bush.

Further, Kemp arrives in Puerto Rico to find a landscape marked by an anxious and largely out-of-work lower class, a middle-class that is disappearing due in part to automation, and a cadre of elites ready to swoop in and erect an escape destination for the few who can afford it. Everyone around Kemp has given up on reporting anything for fear of losing their already limited corporate sponsorship, spending most of their time in alcoholic stupors or screaming through impotent rage. When the writer finally announces his cause, it is the first time in a long time that anyone around him has even considered standing up against the forces of corruption--many of them have no idea how to do it.

If I have a complaint about this wonderful, important film, it's that, like the novel, it wrestles with the identity of its protagonist. When we first meet Kemp, he has awakened in a trashed hotel room to have an awkward conversation with a room service attendant. His behavior is more like the ultra-high Duke, rather than the introspective drinker given to wild notions in the book. On top of that, this is the last we see of this Kemp in the film. He becomes a practically buttoned-down observer of a gaggle of weirdos, absorbing the chaos of his environment before taking it on. It took some getting used to--especially the idea that Depp is too old, physically and idealistically, to play this part--but after the first twenty minutes, I was pretty much on-board.

Last nitpick: there's a big disparity between Kemp's internal monologue, which sounds like later-career Thompson, and the sometimes-timid, sometimes abrasive fluctuations of his interpersonal delivery. This is where, I think, Thompson's fans will be the most challenged: accepting Depp as a semi-innocent, a quasi-gonzo hero with a half-formed identity.

These issues are, as I said, in keeping with the spottiness of the source material. But what the main character lacks in coherence, the rest of the movie makes up for in a marvelous supporting cast, superb art direction, and Robinson's direction--a style that trashes up beauty and makes trash beautiful. I love Rispoli's version of the classic Thompson sidekick. Sala is a wounded idealist whose only goal in life is to get along with as little effort as possible and enjoy what he can of life before everything is turned into plastic. The Dr. Gonzo archetype is typically a wild attorney who gets Thompson into trouble. But unlike those other versions, Sala is both tour guide and mischievous conscience; his call for cosmic justice is passive, unlike the deranged cartoon character played by Benicio Del Toro in Fear and Loathing.

Heard is sexy and vulnerable, but mostly unnecessary. The Rum Diary could just as well have been a bromance between Kemp, Sala, and Moburg who, as played by Ribisi, is like the profane, way-far-gone, Doonesbury version of Duke.

If you have any interest in seeing The Rum Diary, please catch it in the theatre. Robinson's collaboration with cinematographer Dariusz Wolski and art director Dawn Swiderski has produced a stunning, enveloping period piece. The trailer clip of Kemp and Chenault speeding towards the end of a dock in Sanderson's red sports car is exciting and sexy, but what happens when Kemp stops short of the ocean may just have you gasping for breath. Everything in the movie appears to be sweating through a fine layer of salt; the filmmakers capture the queasy postcard-left-out-in-the-sun feeling of the screenplay, and I love that each of the story's pseudo-vignettes has a slightly different look that distinguishes it from the rest (also like a postcard, the movie's non-existent ending--very reminiscent of M. Night Shyamalan's Unbreakable--had me thinking, "Wish you were here!").

I don't know if it's blasphemy to say that the film version of The Rum Diary is better than the book because it's not exactly Thompson's best-known or most highly regarded work. Robinson brings a much-needed sense of perspective--both of the world and of the late author's whole career--to the screen in a way that I dare say would have made him proud. The highest compliment I can give Robinson, and the immensely talented folks he brought together for this project, is that, watching the movie, I felt as though I were discovering Thompson--and his spirit of hope, fearlessness, and belief that words can change the world--for the very first time.

*Four, if you count the disturbing number of people who show up at the multiplex and pick a movie at random, using the same mental coin-toss that decides between a Big Mac and a Quarter-pounder.