dir: Bruce Robinson
You didn’t know this, but The Rum Diary is a superhero movie, of a different stripe. More specifically, it’s a superhero origin story, and it stars Johnny Depp.
Yes, yes, we’re all tired of those. But the superhero in question is Hunter S. Thompson, and the origin is that of his relentless, drug-fuelled campaign against the ‘Bastards’, which only came to an end seven years ago in 2005 when he decided to blow his own brains out.
Now, lest you think he fought against people whose parents weren’t married when they were born (a terrible fate for anyone not born lately, apparently), the battle I refer to is that against the dark forces, the forces of greed, the bastards who would carve up paradise and sell it by the gram, laden with sugar and other life-leeching chemicals. The Rum Diary is about how he found his voice, and how he started writing for the public in order to take the Bastards down.
Or, to at least make life difficult for them in the court of public opinion.
That’s, I think, what the purpose was behind the flick. Johnny Depp, who apparently loved the man deeply and profoundly, is trying to convert everything written by the man into a film, and has essentially played Thompson twice now, both here and in Terry Gilliam’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. I suspect that every few years, whenever there’s a lull in his schedule, he’s going to make more flicks as Hunter S, alternating between him and Captain Jack Sparrow in those damned Pirates of the Caribbean flicks. Damned unnecessary, I say!
I don’t know who gains and who loses from that alternating pattern, because with one he irritates us and overacts shamelessly, and with the other he mildly entertains us with drugged, drunken antics that would get you thrown off of public transport in any country you care to think of.
And there’s not a lot of sunshine separating the two.
This is actually, for Depp, a very low-key role, because though he’s playing an alcoholic yet again, and there’s plenty of rum in the flick of dangerous and flammable potency, he’s mostly a quite quiet straight man to the antics going on around him. He plays Paul Kemp, a seemingly young man (though Johnny’s starting to look his age) who’s washed up on the shores of San Juan in the tumultuous times of 1960. San Juan’s the capital of Puerto Rico, often joked about as being the 51st State. This perhaps only makes sense to Americans, although everywhere from Kuwait to Iraq to Australia has been referred to as such as well.
I know this probably doesn’t make sense, but even recently, Republican candidates seeking the nomination to run against the President were in Puerto Rico, stumping for delegate votes, despite the fact that Puerto Rico, last anyone checked, isn’t part of the Union.
Well, obviously US interests are entrenched in the place, and have been for some time, dating back at least to when Hunter S. Thompson, sorry, Paul Kemp started working at the San Juan Star or whatever the paper was called.
As it opens, even as the flick opens, Kemp is massively hung over. He is so hung over, on his first day, that his eyes aren’t just bloodshot, hidden behind sunglasses that stay there for most of the film, his eyes are mostly red. As in, blood vessels in the sclera (white) part of his eye have burst, and his eyes are blood red.
That’s not very professional, is it, specially on yer first day, you slack arsehole.
He wanders in to work, and is introduced to the various people, none of them Puerto Rican, who work at the paper. Of them, none are important, but he does spend a lot of time drinking with Bob Sala (Michael Rispoli), who looks like the quintessential obese American ex-pat journo from the 1960s.
He’s got the hat and all. Kemp is led around and shown all the interesting squalid parts of Puerto Rico, but is told by his wig-wearing editor (Richard Jenkins) not to write about anything, because that would seriously bum people out Stateside. I never really understood why writing a story in a local, even if it’s an American backed paper, in San Juan, would disturb Americans whilst they wolf down their morning corn flakes, but then there’s a lot I don’t understand, both about the world in general and this flick specifically.
This is a time of turmoil. San Juan’s streets run, at least in the first few minutes, red with protestors fighting with the police. Cuba’s recently gone Commie thanks to the heroic efforts of the Castro brothers and beret-populariser Che Guevara, so there’s a palpable tension in the air.
Kemp walks around passively into this very low-key and somewhat boring shitstorm. His drinking worsens, and he makes the acquaintance of Moberg (a wonderfully vile Giovanni Ribisi), who operates as some kind of perpetually fucked-up and Nazi-loving fairy drugmother, bringing Kemp and Sala pure rum and liquid LSD whenever the story calls for it.
My descriptions here are making it sound like there’s a lot going on, and there isn’t. This review is deceptive, certainly, because the flick is a mess. There’s a plot, or subplot about a truly smug American businessman called Sanderson (Aaron Eckhart, who plays smug arseholes with a disturbing effortlessness) and his machinations to do something to the island, but I can’t say that I understood any of that any more than Kemp does. Sanderson and a cabal of businessmen want to build a hotel on an island that already has a lot of hotels. I’m not sure why we were supposed to care, or see. Sure, they also get Kemp to sign a non-disclosure agreement, but so what? He just seems to bumble around, things happen, and that’s that.
When Sanderson’s jailbait girlfriend (Amber Heard) starts making come-fuck-me goo-goo eyes at Kemp, and with much of the island, he gets all faint and fluttery. She flatters him by telling him that, surely, he’s a wonderful writer, but he tells her that he’s shit, because he hasn’t developed his authorial ‘voice’ yet.
And you know what he, Kemp or Thompson, needs to do that? Some LSD, some adversity, and to have sex with a blonde girl, and that’s how Hunter S. Thompson sprung into existence, drugs akimbo and mind alight with the righteous desire to scream truth to power through the inked page.
The director, Bruce Robinson, is most famous for one darling of a film, being Withnail and I, and not much else since then. He had apparently battled with alcoholism for several years prior to getting involved in this monstrosity, and promptly fell off the wagon to first write the screenplay, and then to shoot the film. Apparently he claims that away from Johnny Depp, he’s been able to regain his tenuous grip on sobriety. I pity the man for his battle with the demon drink, knowing as I do what a horrible fight it is that you never completely win, but that’s no excuse for the mess that this flick is.
A lot of the time it just looks like Robinson doesn’t know what he should be doing or shooting, and these scenes are mostly punctuated by Depp standing around looking like he doesn’t know what he should be doing with himself.
That’s maybe a tad harsh, but this film could have been a lot stronger, though what do I know. Maybe it’s impossible to translate Thompson’s writing to screen properly, or maybe the source material wasn’t that strong to begin with. Either way this is somewhat average as an experience.
There’s a good scene where the Americans all go to a bluesy sugar shack / Bucket o’ Blood-type place where a bluesman is playing “I Wanna Get Funky”, the best version of which is still that put out by the Beasts of Bourbon, but it took me even further out of the flick when I couldn’t help but think “What’s a House of Blues-type place doing in Puerto Rico in 1960? That’s like watching a bunch of Eskimos going to an Irish club to watch some people do some Riverdancing in 1849.”
It’s not a great flick, and it’s not very coherent, but there are some amusing bits (the brawl with the angry locals, the legal troubles in jail and facing the judge, everything Moberg does, the Hitleris Interruptus Moberg orchestrates when Kemp and the blonde are meant to be getting’ it on). And there are some of the seeds that maybe give an inkling of the early experiences that Thompson used to fuel the formation of his worldview and the power of words.
Still, it doesn’t make for compelling viewing. Stick to the book, ultimately, is what I’ve come away with from this experience.
6 times you can practically touch the smell Giovanni Ribisi exhudes wafting off the screen out of 10
“Beasts of obesity. Asses that wouldn't feel an arrow. The great whites. Probably the most dangerous creatures on earth.” – I don’t think he’s talking about sharks, somehow – The Rum Diary