By JAMES MELVILLE
I generally like to open with some vaguely topical reference, which is a lot easier to do when something like Halloween is going on. So…you guys like mustaches? I hear Movember’s going pretty well. By “hear” I of course mean “see,” because it’s easier to view the parade of gross facial hair than it is to listen to it. Or harder to avoid, at any rate. There’s a reason I shaved this morning. It’s because the last time I grew a beard, children wept to behold it.
But, as usual, I digress. On with the show. What’ve we got this week? Let me see…My goodness, is this movie…in theaters? I do believe it is! Well, gather round, children, it’s time for a good ole fashion movie review.
The Rum Diary (2011):
Plot: Paul Kemp (Johnny Depp), an alcoholic American journalist in 1960, goes to Puerto Rico to work at a failing local newspaper. Also in the mix is an equally alcoholic American photographer Sala (Michael Rispoli), and the bad guy’s attractive girlfriend Chenault (Amber Heard), whose name reminds me of perfume. The two bring cock-fighting and sex to the table, respectively. Drunken shenanigans ensue, followed by some last-minute idealism when Kemp realizes, to nobody’s surprise but his, that smooth-talking, rich businessman Sanderson (Aaron Eckhart) is, in fact, a smooth-talking, rich, corrupt businessman.
First order of business: Yes, I see the connection between this and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. In the latter, Johnny Depp does an excellent Hunter S. Thompson impression. Since The Rum Diary is based on a semi-autobiographical novel by Thompson, it’s kind of like Depp is playing the same character, except he’s not. They’re very different movies that both just happen to involve the consumption of vast quantities of alcohol and some hallucinatory drugs—although fewer drugs here than in Loathing. The point is, don’t expect me to say a lot about Loathing. Different movie. Also, I haven’t seen it in a few years.
Second order of—oh, I don’t need to do that every time? Sweet. Anyway, I really like the way that people talk in this film. I suspect this means that I’d enjoy the way that Hunter S. Thompson wrote. Much of the humor comes from Kemp’s eloquent wit, and Depp’s pitch-perfect delivery of said dialogue. Here, his Thompson impression is dialed down a few notches, because Thompson himself was dialed down a few notches when writing the novel upon which the film is based. It’s a little unfortunate, though, that his performance still feels a bit like a Thompson impression.
What The Rum Diary is lacking—and it’s far from perfect—is some clear sense of who Kemp is. Or what the film is, for that matter. But more on that later. In the meantime, Kemp. Where does he come from? New York? The film opens with Kemp waking up hungover in a trashed hotel room. This is his first morning in Puerto Rico, which leads us—and his editor-in-chief (Richard Jenkins)—to believe that he’s an alcoholic. Okay, but how did he get here? It’s reasonable to expect the main character’s backstory to come up at some point, right? I’m not asking for a flashback, just a brief spurt of dialogue. You can even use it for character development. Movies do this all the time, I promise. It’s totally cool. Your parents will never find out. That got weird.
But we never really get how Kemp ended up in Puerto Rico. The film is content to let him meander through the land of booze-filled misadventure. Honestly, the crazy shit is probably the movie’s greatest strength. Dry wit and absurd situational comedy. It’s a good mix. The Rum Diary starts to falter when Kemp tries to get serious and fight corruption. His idealism is half-baked, and that works for his character. He’s “putting the bastards of the world on notice,” which is endearing but not likely to get a whole lot done. We never doubt his conviction, but the film never draws attention to that wide, wide gulf between his intentions and his capabilities. He’s well-meaning but confused. It’s this confusion that never really seems to mean anything to the film, though it really should.
That having been said, I enjoyed watching The Rum Diary at the time. It was only afterwards, when I started to pick at it, that the film fell apart. It’s worth watching, but it might be more enjoyable in a state of altered consciousness.
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