Woozy, Boozy 'Rum Diary' Staggers
James Rocchi, Special to MSN Movies
Based on a novel by Hunter S. Thompson -- resurrected from clutter and confusion of the author's filing room by the literal intervention of Johnny Depp during the initial research for Depp's 1998 turn as a variation on Thompson in "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas" -- "The Rum Diary" hangs on the point of a wickedly sharp contradiction that has affected films since the dawn of the medium: What happens when the only person who can get a movie made is the last person who should star in it? This is not a slight against Depp's skill, will or enthusiasm; he's backed the film to the hilt, coaxing director Bruce Robinson out of retirement, and hurls himself into a reprise of his work as the jut-jawed, mumbling, motor-mouthed genteel-yet-disastrous Thompson.
The problem, though, is that while Thompson's original book is inspired by his work at a failing newspaper in Puerto Rico in the '60s -- after his time at two separate institutions, the U.S. Air Force and Time magazine -- that story is driven by the flaws and mistakes and naiveté of the real Thompson, 23 at the time. And Depp -- through no fault of his own, of course, given how time's arrow moves in but one direction -- is 48. Depp's Paul Kemp is a woozy, boozy ruin, brought down to Puerto Rico to work, cheaply, for the local English-language paper, which is less of a business concern and more of a home for wayward eccentrics, from editor-in-chief Lotterman (Richard Jenkins) to dissolute photographer Sala (Michael Rispoli, broad and charming) and the fearsomely ruined Moberg (Giovanni Ribisi). Swaying and skulking in his trench coat, Moberg looks like a cave troll who took up residence in a wet taxi sometime around last New Year's; Robinson could have easily asked Ribisi to bring it in a little, and should have done so.
Trying to get his footing while still drinking 161 miniature liquor bottles from the hotel room that his employer has arranged for him (a willfully obtuse Kemp, confronted by Lotterman, asks, "Are they not complimentary?"), Kemp meets the players and the people of the community of partially exiled Americans who run things on the island. This takes Kemp into the orbit of Sanderson (Aaron Eckhart), a capitalist-imperialist smoothie with a golden-girl trophy partner, Chenault (Amber Heard). Sanderson and Chenault both, in time, want to seduce -- and be seduced -- by Kemp. But the Kemp-Sanderson interaction feels entirely too familiar -- plucky, scruffy misfits versus too-smooth money men -- and the romance between Kemp and Chenault, for all of the good-looking raw material it has to work with, doesn't turn into much more than a tourism-postcard diversion
Robinson's direction and technical team are top-notch. Director of photography Dariusz Wolski is given all of '60s Puerto Rico as a backdrop, and he creates striking images and moments of glowing beauty. It's too bad the people of Puerto Rico get such short shrift, shown as angry mobs, bar girls and, in one case, a Voodoo woman, and given literally nothing to say. The production design is full of retro and surreal touches, including a bejeweled turtle as a symbol of insane excess, but the potential pillage of the land, and its people, is framed only as a matter for Kemp's soul, not the fate of a people and a place. Depp has Thompson's manner and methods down to a science; it's too bad a similar level of thought didn't go into having the screenplay do more with the material than simply place it on-screen.
Part of me likes to imagine the version of this film you could have made with an actor even slightly closer to the age Thompson was at the time -- Anton Yelchin, say, or Aaron Paul, someone who could capture the young Thompson's fury and folly. But the fact is that while Depp's star power and money got this film made, they also mean the movie feels less like an actual film and more like retroactive setup for "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas," not just in Depp's performance, but in the tone and tenor of the scenes. There are boozy freak-outs, fights with greedy capitalists, slimy hallucinations of tongues snaking from the befuddled mouths of fellow drug-taking compatriots in the rainy dark of a shabby room -- but all these feel less like organic parts of a story than like checkboxes in a to-do-list of Thompson's themes and behaviors drawn not from the novel but instead from the icon's public persona and later work. "The Rum Diary" could have been a portrait of a time and place at a moment of great change; instead, it winds up being a chronicle of an actor returning to familiar territory in a moment of stasis. The film initially looks like a boozy stumble through personal and political history; it winds up being the laborious equivalent of a drunkard clumsily retracing dance steps he first made when he was much younger and more alert.
James Rocchi's writings on film have appeared at Cinematical.com,
Netflix.com, AMCtv.com, IFC.com, SFGate.com and in Mother Jones magazine. He was
also the on-air film critic for San Francisco's CBS-5 from 2006 to 2008. He now
lives in Los Angeles, where every ending is a twist ending.