By Mike Wilmington Wilmington@moviecitynews.com
Wilmington on Movies: The Rum Diary
The Rum Diary (Three Stars)
U.S.: Bruce Robinson, 2011
The movie The Rum Diary, which I liked, is based — loosely, but that’s all right — on the novel that Hunter S. Thompson wrote when he was 22, a young guy, before “Hell’s Angels,” before “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,” before “The Great Shark Hunt.” Back then, he was just another writer-shmo, kicking around Puerto Rico, trying to get a reporter’s job on the San Juan Star, swigging a lot of hootch, chasing orgasms, raising a lot of hell, and laying down at least some of the pieces of his eventual legend as American journalism’s Doctor of Gonzo — a madman/genius/fireball of super-literary indecent exposure fueled by booze, cons and those bad (or good) intentions with which the road to hell, or maybe heaven, is maybe paved.
This movie was written and directed by Bruce Robinson — the sometimes inspired British actor/writer/filmmaker who also wrote and directed the semi-autobiographical 1987 boozy-Brits-on-the-loose masterpiece Withnail and I, and then floundered or was pistol-whipped through two other dubious movies and has been basically silent for the last nineteen years (including the two years that The Rum Diary has been on the shelf with alleged problems). And, as I was saying, it’s an hommage (classy word, huh?) to the Good (or Bad) Doctor a.k.a. Dr. Hunter S. Thompson a.k.a. Raoul Duke from his number one Hollywood admirer, star-producer Johnny Depp.
More than admirer. More than Hollywood. More than star. More than Depp. Johnny is the Thompson acolyte/buddy who supervised the Good Doctor’s funeral after he committed suicide in 2005 (maybe the writer’s ultimate protest against deadlines, which he didn‘t like to meet), arranging for Thompson’s ashes to be shot out of a cannon over the Pacific Ocean. (In the spot where the ashes landed, it is said, dolphins circle the waters packing 20 gauge shotguns behind their fins and blasting to bits any shark who comes within miles.)
Depp also, of course, persuaded Thompson to publish the long-unpublished manuscript of “The Rum Diary,“ and godfathered this movie of it, and plays the Thompson-derived character in it. Earlier, Depp played the movie role of Thompson with uncanny cool dedication, kick-ass fervor, lotsa chutzpah and just the right deadpan monotone voice and inner nervy throb in Terry Gilliam’s under-appreciated semi-classic 1998 movie of Thompson’s 1971 gonzo masterpiece “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.” (That movie is on Criterion Classics, if you want a wicked cinematic treat. If you want a literary treat, and don’t already have that great book, with those wicked Ralph Steadman illustrations, your library is deficient. It‘s the Great American Un-novel.)
Here Depp plays, and none could do it better, Paul Kemp, Thompson’s alter-ego, a reporter/hell-raiser set loose in Puerto Rico in the early ‘60s. And this sort-of cinematic roman a clef, changed by writer-director Bruce Robinson — considerably, but that’s all right — is a good nasty show pulsing and snapping and exploding with the witty chaos, counter-culture venom and inspired invective that were the Good Doctor’s mock-shock-and-awe stock in trade. Second-hand Gonzo, it’s true, but even diluted Thompson packs a wallop, since the raw unfiltered original blows the back of your head off.
The plot of The Rum Diary (sketchily, but that’s all right) is a sort of “Education Sentimentale”/“Gaily, Gaily,” with rum and tequila. Paul goes to San Juan to work on the Star, winning a reporter’s job on a paper full of drunks because he was the only applicant. (In real life, Thompson didn’t get the job.) Paul then gets tossed out of a local hotel the paper has rented for him, for trying to break into the mini-bar and other crazed antics, and is forced to room in the squalid digs of The Star’s irreverent photographer Sala, played (funnily and open-heartedly) by Michael Rispoli, with Sala’s bizarre roommate Moburg, played (madly) by Giovanni Ribisi, as a lunatic writer who likes to dress up as a fascist and listen to Hitler’s speeches.
Soon, Paul is leading a life of sunlight and sin (shamelessly, but that’s all right). Soon, he falls into the clutches of the corrupt PR genius Sanderson, played (dead on) by Aaron Eckhart. Sanderson is a criminally handsome huckster/con artist who mediates and facilitates for the kind of well-dressed, greed-crazed money-glommers Republicans like to call, reverently, “job creators”: big time hustlers who are master-minding the kind of hotel complex that might have been designed by Albert Speer, if he’d been hired by Conrad Hilton, instead of Hitler. Sanderson’s main squeeze is the adorable Chenault, played (blondely and splendiferously) by Amber Heard, and sometimes you’re thankful for movie clichés. If Johnny Depp‘s Paul couldn’t get a romance going here, they’re paying him too much. We follow all these people (and more) around for a couple of hours, and, I don’t know, they amused and entertained me. Maybe you‘d rather look at Smurfs, and be my guest.
A warning. This movie will not teach you to be a better person. Or a richer person. Or a more famous person. Or a job creator. Or even a person or player capable of settling down with a blonde doll like Chenault, the knockout a clef played so va-va-va-voomishly by Heard, and adored and pursued in desultory but fairly determined fashion by Depp as Paul. Watching The Rum Diary, you might get a few fashion tips, especially if you‘re a blonde bombshell. But basically, this movie will teach you how to be a drunk and a sloppy housekeeper and a venturesome oddball ducking jobs and driving red Chevy Corvettes with your weirdo chums from party to party in San Juan, until suddenly you decide to be the celebrator of the great American orgy, and the scourge of the corrupt straight ruling class (especially Richard Nixon, who, Thompson once said, never let him down).
Anyway, you try. Maybe you flub your first shot. So what. There will be others, as the movie’s coda reminds us. And Paul, on some level, is Gonzo royalty, after all. The throne awaits. We’ll forget the suicide. After all, Hemingway did it, too.
END OF ALERT
The Rum Dairy will also teach you, if you watch Richard Jenkins very closely — he plays (with cynical ferocity) Paul’s corrupt editor-boss Lotterman — how not to wear a toupee. (This is something you probably need to know, if you ever go to San Juan.) By the way, Jenkins is so good, I’d like them to have doubled his screen time. DVD Deleted Scenes curators take note.
The movie is good because it has funny lines and good actors and an edgy, smart viewpoint, and very, very good visuals — thanks to production designer Chris Seagers (who knows how to make a mess ) and cinematographer Darius Wolski (who knows how to shoot one) and ace editor Carol Littleton, who knows how to cut it all together. Despite Robinson‘s alterations, the movie has a sense of who Thompson was, and where his talent or genius lay. He was a master of the spew, a genius of the fifty megaton, in-your-face, totally unbuttoned, super-snakebite, blast-the-assholes, mess-with-the-best-and-die-like-the-rest, deadly-controlled literary tantrum. No one did it better. I just hope he’s in a place where they have no deadlines. And lots of rum.
Right beside my bed, in the meantime, is a copy of Thompson‘s “The Great Shark Hunt,” alongside “The Thurber Carnival” and Ben Hecht’s “A Child of the Century.” I use them as cures for insomnia. Not that they put me to sleep, but they make the insomnia more bearable. As for The Rum Diary, I’m glad Johnny Depp got his hands on it and that they finally released the picturre and glad that the movie expressed at least some of the well-directed, on-target bile that Thompson spewed, in his life after San Juan, so eloquently, so outrageously, so fiercely, so accurately and so hilariously. (And maybe hopelessly, but that’s all right.)