CAPSULE: THE RUM DIARY (2011)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Johnny Depp, Aaron Eckhart, Amber Heard, Michael Rispoli, Giovanni Ribisi

PLOT: An alcoholic journalist goes to Puerto Rico where he encounters unscrupulous

Still from The Rum Diary (2011)

capitalists and bottomless mini-bars.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: The confluence of three offbeat talents—-seldom seen cult auteur (How to Get Ahead in Advertising) directing quirk king Johnny Depp in an adaptation of a semi-autobiographical novel by gonzo godfather —produces a movie that’s far more conventional than you might have guessed.

COMMENTS:  For better or worse, it’s impossible to avoid comparing Rum Diary (unfavorably) with Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. The film’s producers can’t complain the comparison is unfair, because they cut a trailer that’s obviously aimed at hooking Loathing fans: it’s filled with boozy shenanigans, a bowling ball knocking down ten pin rum bottles, and Johnny Depp promising, in his best deadpan Hunter S. Thompson drawl, “all of this might sound like some crazed hallucination…”  Diary even contains a mild LSD trip sequence that sees Michael Rispoli’s tongue extend six feet in the air “like an accusatory giblet”; of course, this sixty seconds of psychedelics occupies a prime place in the marketing scheme.  There’s also a scene with a voodoo priestess who coughs up frogs—and that’s about it on the weirdness front.  The rest of the movie is a series of drunken war stories in which part-time journalist, full-time imbiber and would-be novelist Paul Kemp (Thompson’s alter-ego, played by Depp as a less manic and assured Raoul Duke) worries about “finding his voice” and flirts with joining up with the “Bastards.”  Why the Bastards (represented by real-estate developer Aaron Eckhart) are so keen to recruit horoscope writer Kemp into their venal cabal isn’t clear; corrupting idealists is what makes them Bastards, I guess.  Also not clear is what’s so darn evil about their plan to build a hotel that would supply thousands of jobs for the local populace on land previously only used for the noble purpose of naval test bombing.  Their marketing plan, which would involve Kemp slipping some favorable words into his columns, is unethical, sure, but hardly a screaming headline, page one outrage.  But the scheme’s investors smoke cigars and complain about Negros and Communists, so they are pretty clearly villainous.  Despite their wickedness, though, the only moral objections Kemp actually raises have to do with the way Eckhart treats his flighty, arm-candy lover (Amber Heard, who looks fabulous in a bikini but disappears from the movie like a neglected girlfriend).  Joining Depp, Eckhart and Heard are Rispoli and Giovanni Ribisi as a couple of colorful drinking buddies (Rispoli plays his photographer role like a 1940s New York City cabbie, while Nazi-obsessed basket case Ribisi affects an annoying whine).  The trio’s wandering adventures build to a remarkable anticlimax.  None of the plot lines dangled off this tropical pier snag a catch, but Kemp/Thompson does eventually find his literary voice—too bad for us it only happens after he’s finished narrating this tale.  It’s pleasant to see Depp reprise his role as Thompson, and there are memorable lines of dialogue and set pieces (all of which find their way into the trailer).  But the movie sips at drunken insanity rather than gulping it down; it never goes four-sheets-to-the-wind crazy.  The tone of muted madness here doesn’t do justice to Thompson’s gonzo spirit.  Call it “Mild Concern and Dislike in San Juan.”

“The Rum Diary” was written by Thompson some time in the late 1950s or early 1960s but was rejected by several publishers.  Johnny Depp reportedly discovered the manuscript in Thompson’s basement while he was researching the writer’s mannerisms in preparation for his role in Fear and Loathing.  Depp encouraged Thompson to revise the lost novel; it was published in 1998.   The actor also served as executive producer for this adaptation.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…has no mighty gonzo wind… it leaves our freak flag limp.”–David Edelstein, New York Magazine (contemporaneous)

2 thoughts on “CAPSULE: THE RUM DIARY (2011)”

  1. I rushed to the movie theater to see this. Much like your review says, i was expecting Fear and Loathing, and instead got a pretty standard movie. Another disappointment was Paul Kemp isn’t even Hunter Thompson, he’s a fictional character made up for the novel. It wasn’t a terrible movie, it just was far less normal than expected.

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