Review: The Rum Diary

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The Rum Diary is by no means a great film, but it is buoyed by an affection for Hunter S. Thompson (the film is based on his novel) and a nostalgia for a time, place and state of mind, particularly the notion that journalists can change the world. Johnny Depp, as Thompson’s avatar Paul Kemp, late in the story writes a manifesto declaring that the “bastards” of the world are on notice, and his voice will be one of “ink and rage.”

The way the film captures Thompson’s voice had me seeing it as a half-glass full rather than empty.  To be sure it suffers from some of the self-righteousness that Thompson could be prone to, and it at times struggles to find a tone that balances slapstick comedy with moral outrage. Some of the characters are mere stick figures. But Depp’s affectionate portrayal and a script by Bruce Robinson, who wrote and directed the great Withnail and I (but hasn’t made a film in almost 20 years) suffuses the entire enterprise with a kind of joyous reverie that sustains it.

The film is set in Puerto Rico in 1960, and even those who don’t like anything else should glory in the production design. The cars, the clothes, the sets and the music are all terrific. We open on Depp, as a young journalist, awaking after a night of debauchery. He pulls himself together for a job interview at the San Juan Star, an English-language newspaper. The editor-in-chief (Richard Jenkins), despite reservations about Depp’s obvious drinking problem, gives him the job (Depp later learns he was the only applicant). He’s shown the ropes by the staff photographer (Michael Rispoli), who explains that the paper is on its last legs. Depp’s first job is to write the horoscope and do rewrites.

The first half of the film has Depp and Rispoli engaging in picaresque adventures, such as being chased from a late-night encounter at a jungle restaurant, going to cockfights, and escaping from the police (one of my favorite lines of dialogue has Rispoli shouting, “Oh my god, it’s the policeman we set on fire!”). Meanwhile, Depp is seduced by a pair of gringos: Aaron Eckhart, as a shady real estate developer, and his girlfriend, Amber Heard, whom Depp meets when she appears to him in the ocean, like a mermaid.

Eckhart hires Depp to write marketing material for his venture of turning a nearby island that is being used as a gunnery range into a vacation paradise. It’s never clear why Eckhart would put so much stock in Depp, which is a big plot problem. Nevertheless, Depp takes meetings with Eckhart’s backers, including a rabid anti-communist American. Depp tries to keep his attraction for Heard under check, but she doesn’t make it easy.

Eventually the film takes on a more serious tone, as Depp realizes Eckhart is a crook, and that there is a large disparity in income between the likes of him and the peasants. It’s an easy kind of moralizing, and I never quite grasped what the problem was. Is all development bad? Does it lead to poverty? The film is vague on the issue. But it awakens something in Depp, who decides to fight back.

Also in the film is Giovanni Ribisi as a scabrous “crime and religious correspondent,” the sort who is always drunk and listens to Hitler recordings for ironic purposes. At one point he asks Depp to check out his penis, and asks him if it’s the clap. “It’s a standing ovation,” Depp tells him. There are a lot of mordantly funny lines like that, particularly a riff by Depp on Richard Nixon, whom he watches debating John Kennedy. “What is this blizzard of shame?” he asks. “The man lies like he breathes.”

Unfortunately, not all of the dialogue is as rich. Jenkins, a very good actor, is saddled with a comic toupee and some cheesy lines, which make him seem like a version of J.K. Simmons as J. Jonah Jameson. Heard, who is made to look luminous (not a tough job) isn’t given much character development, instead simply serving as the embodiment of a male fantasy.

But overall I liked The Rum Diary. A scene that has everyone going to a local club to hear music pinpoints the nature of the characters–Depp, Rispoli and even Heard are at home in the sweaty Latin canteen, but Eckhart, pressed in linen, representing the colonialist point of view, is distinctly out of place, and ends up thrown out on his ear.

My grade for The Rum Diary: B

About Jackrabbit Slim

Location: Vegas, Baby! I’m much older than the other whippersnappers here, a baby boomer. I tend to be more snobbish about film, disdaining a lot of the multiplex fare for “cinema.” My favorite films: Woody Allen’s oeuvre (up until about 1990), The Godfather, The Graduate, A Hard Day’s Night, Pulp Fiction. Politics: Well, George McGovern was my political hero. I’m also a prickly atheist. Occupation: Poised to be an English teacher in Las Vegas. For many years I was an editor at Penthouse Magazine. My role on this blog seems to be writing lots of reviews and being the resident Oscar maven.

2 responses »

  1. Saw this today, mostly out of boredom, and was suprised that it didn’t really solve my problem. I didn’t really expect to like it but I never expected it to be so damn dull. If Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas overdosed on the Thompson spirit, this seemed to be lacking it almost completely. It felt more like The Motorcycle Diaries, but unlike that movie didn’t have a dark cloud hanging over and playing against its easy moralizing.

    I also found myself wondering exactly when Depp stopped being an interesting actor. I’m not sure why Robinson thought it was a good idea to limit him to passive reaction shots, but goodness is it ever a monotonous performance. Someone says something to him, he looks back all quiet and squinty-eyed. Maybe mumbles something semi-coherently. Over and over again.

    So, even with low expectations this was a disappointment.

  2. I largely agree with JS on this, although perhaps liked it slightly less. It’s agreeable and likable (especially in the first half) which does convey a convincing sense of time and place. A lot of credit must go to writer/director Robinson who adds a lot of nice deft touches in the film.

    But it’s far from a perfect film. The scenes in the newspaper office with the cynical, harried editor giving a new employee a hard time felt like they’ve been in other films dozens of times before. The second half is definitely weaker as the film seems to meander and get distracted in unnecessary scenes (like the scene with the witch doctor). And while Amber Heard certainly conveys sex appeal, in her performance and look she’s far too contemporary; feels like someone has gone back 50 years in time.

    But overall I’m favourable to the film with lots of good performances (especially liked Rispoli) and a nice ending that was somewhat downbeat but hopeful.

    Rating: B-

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