- User Rating: Excellent
Bang For The Buck
Pros:Performances, dialogue, cinematography
Cons:rushed last 20 minutes
The Bottom Line: No Spoiler, DVD-review Rum-Diary--a flawed gem based on Hunter S. Thompson's posthumously-published novel with memorable characters brought to life by Johnny Depp and others, directed by Bruce Robinson.
2011’s Rum Diary (completed in 2009) is an adaptation of an early Hunter S. Thompson novel that was found and published partially due to the efforts of Thompson’s friend Johnny Depp after Thompson’s suicide/death in 200. Depp of course played Thompson’s alter ego Raoul Duke in Terry Gilliam’s quirky Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and did an excellent job of embodying Thompson’s quirky mannerism, attitude and voice (Bill Murray did a superb job of being Thompson in the flawed Where the Buffaloes Roam in 1980).
The novel is a what-if semi-autobiographical work by Thompson who imagined he was hired as a journalist in Puerto Rico (after being fired from several ‘jobs’ including a copy boy at Time) in 1960. Some of his real life experiences at the time were turned into stories for the novel. (Thompson was not actually hired as a journalist in Puerto Rico but did spend some time there).
Depp produced the film as a tribute to his friend Thompson and I was pleasantly surprised how well written, acted and directed MOST of the film is. It’s an under-rated gem that isn’t entirely satisfying—particularly its last 20 minutes, but if you’re interested in Thompson or Depp you definitely want to see it.
It’s an eccentric, un-even film whose plot is very slowly developed (which is okay) because it is also about a young writer inventing his writing voice and public persona several years before he began writing in his now famous Gonzo journalistic style for Rolling Stone magazine in the late 60s. Yes, Depp (at 48) who looks to be in his late 20’s here is still a bit older than the 22 year old alter-ego of Thompson (Paul Kemp) but he pulls it off quite well. We don’t know how old he is supposed to be in the movie, anyway—so it hardly matters.
You should also know in many ways this is an old fashioned conventional sort of film. It focuses on its characters, more than its slowly developed plot and it’s the quirky characters and their relationships that hold our interest throughout. The dialogue is very well written and how various characters are introduced will amuse and entertain.
I had NOT read the book, nor knew what the film was about before seeing it, which is probably the best way to view this film. Letting it unfold at its own pace while introducing its cast of quirky characters meant I didn’t have expectations and was able to enjoy each scene. A few were obviously establishing what was to come, and a few felt a bit forced, but mostly, the acting, witty dialogue and pace was like a very good Robert Altman movie.
“I’ve got no voice! I don’t know how to write like me.” (Paul Kemp)
Story (Sort of) --Avoiding MOST spoilers
It’s Puerto Rico 1959-60 and Paul Kemp (Depp) is the new staff reporter/writer for the English newspaper the San Juan Star. Kemp, a struggling novelist who drinks too much is supposed to write the horoscopes and tourist friendly pieces about bowling and Puerto Attractions. Quickly he’s move up to write about crime and politics—but isn’t supposed to do so in a way that scares tourists or worries advertisers.
From the start he makes friends with cynical staff photographer Bob Sala (Michael Rispoli) who gives him the lay of the land and tells him not to laugh “at Lotterman’s rug”. Rispoli might remind you of both Peter Boyle (from 1980s Where the Buffalo Roams) and Benecio del Toro (From 1998’s Fear and Loathing) who played Thompson’s sidekick/lawyer/friend, Lazlo, but Rispoli makes the pre Lazlo character Sala his own. He strikes all the right notes and avoids doing too much which is a real challenge in a part like this.
Lotterman is the intense editor in chief and part owner of the paper who’s an irascible drowning man trying to captain the sinking ship of a newspaper while trying to maintain some sense of journalism. Richard Jenkins performance is one of the most delightfully entertaining you’ll see. He’s hopeful that Kemp will be the right guy to help motivate the other writers and be the kind of fresh blood that revitalizes the newspaper.
There’s another important reporter who has been suspended but not fired from the paper. His name is Moburg (Giovanni Ribisi)and he’s the religion and travel reporter. When we meet him, we realize he’s a hopeless alcoholic and part-time drug addict who’s turning his brain into mush. He’s also very smart but completely unmanageable—sort of the Raoul Duke of the story.
Kemp sent some of his writing to Editor Lotterman to get his job and somehow, Sanderson (Aaron Eckhart) has seen it. At first, Kemp doesn’t know who Sanderson is. Later when he asks Sala who Sanderson is—Sala tells him he’s bad news. He used to be a reporter but now he’s a rich PR guy who’s in bed with big business crooks and shysters. “Stay away from him.” Sala warns.
Paul Kemp has every intention of being a good reporter at Star but when he can’t go to the hotel bar because of a private party, he takes a paddle boat and some booze and goes out onto the water. He bumps into a beautiful young woman who’s out for a swim. She’s the fiancé’ of someone who’s speaking at the party. Kemp is infatuated with her.
“Why did she have to happen? I was doing so good without her.” Kemp mutters.
This foreshadows what will happen in terms of the movie’s story line. She’s a sort of low-key femme fatale and the story is a variation on a film noir (and it reminded me a bit of the under-rated Robert Mitchum film—1951’s His Kind of Woman which was directed by John Fallow)
Since the story unfolds slowly and we’re really not sure where it’s going for at least 45 minutes, I won’t summarize and spoil the developments. If you’re going to enjoy this movie—that’s the least I can do.
Ultimately the writer Kemp makes a bad choice and in the process of trying to do the right thing, puts himself and other characters in danger. He also finds his writing voice in the process.
Unfortunately the last 20 minutes of the film seems rushed. We don’t get a scene showing us Kemp desperately looking for someone, but we instead meet up with him after he’s been up all night. Even a mediocre short scene would have helped.
The pace of the film is pretty lackadaisical and not rushed and then suddenly during the last 20 minutes we get several short scenes that wrap up the story-line.
This is a flaw and unfortunate but it doesn’t really ruin the film, because it’s really not about the plot-line but the characters. They are colorful and interesting. The short scenes however, don’t let the characters breathe (with the exception of pretty good—though conventional final scene).
The screenwriter and director is Bruce Robinson the former actor, best known for the screenplay of The Killing Fields, and writing and directing Withnail & I. This is his first theatrical film in nearly two decades –17 years (after How to Get Ahead in Advertising (1989) and Jennifer Eight (1992)!!! (Diary was completed in 2009). He gets spirited performances from all the actors and with cinematographer Darusz Wolski (whose recent credits include Alice in Wonderland, Sweeny Todd, Pirates of the Caribbean) gives us vibrant colorful atmosphere and some important period detail. The brief Carnivale sequence is vibrant, the sunny beaches, various cars beautifully shot.
There are also a few surrealistic touches –this is Hunter S. Thompson after –all. Moburg introduces Sala and Kemp to an experimental secret drug used by the FBI and administered as eye-drops. “You should try it.”. Sala and Kemp have no idea what it is called and try it. (It’s LSD of course and the scene is lower key than Fear and Loathing but memorable).
Sala: You’re high you fool! Drink some rum!
Depp’s acting is memorable. There are a few too many reaction shots of him moving his eyebrows up (while wearing big sunglasses) but he’s mostly assimilated Thompson’s quirky traits in a natural and believable manner. Some of his line readings are priceless --balancing a sort of laid-back rage with wide-eyed naiveté that makes the character likeable and even a bit sympathetic. His Keaton-esque reactions we first saw in Benny and Joon are here too.
There’s also the scene where Sala and Kemp watch their neighbor’s TV with binoculars (the neighbor is deaf and plays the sound very loud) which is playing a 1960 Richard Nixon interview. Kemp mumbles several comments which of course fore-shadow Thompson’s Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail era essays.
I’m not sure how this one will play for someone who isn’t at least a little bit familiar with Hunter S. Thompson—but for Thompson fans, there’s a lot to like/appreciate here.
The reason Rum Diary exists as a film is because of Depp and his admiration for his friend Hunter S. Thompson. About 45 million was spent on the film and its international box office was less than half that.
Thompson was a brilliant writer but also a flawed tragic figure. It’s remarkable his real-life indulgence in drugs and alcohol didn’t destroy him before he was 40. Diary is almost an episodic low-keyed farce and it’s ultimately a light-weight film whose updated film nourish plot is pretty much dumped at its conclusion. There are so many good scenes, beautiful scenery and enough impressive acting to recommend it highly despite its flaws. It’s a gem and lot of you will enjoy this one. See it.
The technical presentation on DVD gives us pristine visuals with bright reds, cool blues and lush greens. The darker night scenes are not a problem and there are little if any digital artifacts. The 5.1 DTS HD audio is also clear, crisp and impressive with good use of surround in key scenes.
The rental disc I first got had no extras on it and all. The Blu-Ray has two short featurettes. They’re both pretty standard stuff. One is about the film’s production, the other about the adaptation of the book which is slightly more interesting.
It’s really a shame we don’t get more. Bruce Robinson has delivered a couple of wonderful commentary tracks for his Withnail and I DVD releases. A Robinson and Depp commentary track should be here. If it was this would probably be an absolute MUST OWN disc for me.
Some well-written dialogue, beautiful scenery and period details, colorful quirky characters and superb acting are good enough to over-look the weak last 20 minutes of this under-seen and under-appreciated gem.
Rum Diary’s near film noir plot is secondary to the characters. It reminded me of a Howard Hawk film (like To Have and Have Not) where the characters and relationships matter a lot more than a thin, weak plot. Johnny Depp for the second time plays a Hunter S. Thompson alter-ego character. He’s even better at it under Robinson’s more restrained direction (Terry Gilliam couldn’t resist a few over-the-top scenes in Fear and Loathing). There are more than a few flaws to pick at. Diary is at times very conventional and we don’t know what story it is telling us for almost 40 minutes, but many won’t care a bit.
The best way to watch is to watch it unfold and appreciate the acting, characters, dialogue and cinematography.
Kemp: Oscar Wilde once said, "Nowadays, people know the price of everything, and the value of nothing."
©2012, Christopher J. Jarmick All Rights Reserved.
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