The Rum Diary
Screenwriter/Director: Bruce Robinson
Starring: Johnny Depp
Review: 4 stars (of five)
It is perilously close to midnight, and I’ve spent the last ninety minutes emptying a bottle of rum into a small glass, pausing periodically to empty the glass into me. Seems like a good time to start writing about Hunter S. Thompson.
Well, not Thompson, directly. Thompson as mediated, again, brilliantly, by Johnny Depp, who first allowed the loa of gonzo journalism to ride him in Terry Gilliam’s 1998 delight, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. ’98 was also the year of publication for The Rum Diary, a novel that a 22-year-old Thompson composed in 1960, failed to sell, and kept in a drawer (with a previous, still-unrevealed novel) until late in his career.
The result, at least as it appears onscreen (I haven’t read the book yet, but the film makes me eager to do so), feels like an early book. Thompson is not yet the full-blown “gonzo” genius he later became—the dialogue crackles in Bruce Thompson’s brilliant script, which one assumes relies heavily on the source material, but it’s not all the way there. If you’re not the type to read books, then just before running that hose from the exhaust pipe in through the cracked rear window, you should check out Depp’s outing with Gilliam for the flavor of the peak, technicolor Thompson.
In addition to not being what we’d belatedly recognize as full-gonzo Hunter, the story shows certain other frailties endemic of young writers. The characters are often not quite fully realized, and in particular, the one woman in the film given more than incidental dialogue is by far the weakest character in the production, a sure sign of either an immature male writer or a Hollywood production.
But don’t let that stand in the way of a massively enjoyable cinematic experience. This film is the best thing you can do in the dark with 100 strangers that doesn’t require you to bring your own Vaseline. Director and screenwriter Bruce Robinson brings a deft touch to the material, packing the script with that patented Thompson snake oil and then turning Depp loose to make it a riveting visual experience. The film abounds with aggressively smart choices in that regard, but my favorite of the more subtle moves is a sequence in which Depp and his sidekick try a new, unnamed hallucinogen that must be LSD. There’s a great shot, before the drug takes effect, where we’re watching television through a neighbor’s window. Then the camera shifts focus, without moving, and we see the pane of glass that must be inches from the camera lens, slicked over with raindrops, the sound of the downpour now drowning out the buzz of the broadcast. It’s a great and low-key indication of the consciousness shift that is about to become more explicit.
In the course of the film, Depp’s character, Thompson stand-in Paul Kemp, faces a lot of potential conflicts or challenges. There is a beautiful blonde, assayed by Amber Heard. There is an older, more dissolute reporter who stands as a foreshadowing of who Kemp might become (played by Giovanni Ribisi, 35 during the shooting of this film, while the “younger” Depp was playing the 30-year-old Kemp, written as a standin for 22-year-old Thompson, at the age of 46). There is the demon rum. There is the editor for whom Depp works, who is a mouthpiece for mediocrity. There is, most prominently, an exploitative and criminally unscrupulous real estate speculator played by Aaron Eckhart.
The way a movie works, you can identify the theme by noting which conflict is resolved last. If it’s a film about a boxer who argues with his wife and never won the respect of his father, then if the film ends with his wife leaving him, then him winning the fight, then finally his father reconciling with him, we know the film is about the relationship with Dad, because that was the one the filmmakers saved until last. It’s a really simple trick.
In this film, Depp’s final and most meaningful confrontation is with a faceless foe. He attempts to rally his journalistic colleagues against an absent enemy and is thwarted not exactly by lack of funds or lack of enthusiasm, but by the actions of a faceless creditor to his failed newspaper, a foe that never appears and whose victory occurs off-camera. This tells us what this slice of ugly Puerto Rican life is really about.
Depp’s character is railing against society, against capitalism, against the naked greed that thousands of inarticulate and raw “Occupy” protesters are squatting in their own filth against right now. I’ve been listening to the helicopters night and day here in Oakland as my own city’s Occupy movement has clashed with police, who apparently have donned riot gear over sanitation issues. Depp’s foe in this film is not one specific bastard, Eckhart’s shady investor. That’s the usual cinematic convention, to set up a single personification of a larger evil, and to let the protagonist win or lose against it. George Bailey squares off against Mister Potter, rather than against plutocratic exploitation in the abstract.
But here, Depp’s last, losing stand is against a system, a system with no face, no accountability, whose workings are entirely inscrutable to the benighted and besotted journalist. The film makes multiple efforts to set up the Thompson analogue as a curiously moral, thouroughly inebriated crusader against the “bastards” whose corrupt hands ultimately shape our world. It’s a powerful represenation, and one that helps bring the film’s various adventures into sharper focus.
It’s unfortunate that the denouement is a little shoddy—Depp does this film’s equivalent of riding off into the sunset, while some closing titles confuse the fictional Paul Kemp with the real Hunter Thompson, who would go on to be a journalistic legend. But really, that and the shallow treatment of Amber Heard’s characters are the only demerits against a film that is 95% pure, uncut entertainment.
Highly recommended, shortcomings notwithstanding.
To truly appreciate Depp’s cinematic channeling of Thompson, enjoy this 1988 HST appearance on Late Night with David Letterman, and compare his mumbling mass of verbal ticks to the slick appropriation Depp displays in this clip from The Rum Diary.
Thompson: “There’s nothing better than talking to a good, mean Jesuit.”
Depp: “Oh god, why did she have to happen? Just when I was doing so well without her.”