Sunday, June 24, 2012
The Rum Diary
Director: Bruce Robinson
Starring: Johnny Depp, Aaron Eckhart, Michael Rispoli, Amber Heard, Richard Jenkins, Giovanni Ribisi
Running Time: 120 min.
★★ ½ (out of ★★★★)
What sticks out most in the mind after watching Bruce Robinson's run-of-the-mill adaptation of Hunter S. Thompson's The Rum Diary is its insignificance. That would be fine if it were fun, but instead it plays as if a studio executive just got a memo that Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas became a cult classic that needs to capitalized on as soon as Johnny Depp's available, but failed to take notes on what made that movie so crazy and special. This seems to want to be that crazy, and even comes close a few times, but a conventional, uninspired treatment of the material ties it down. And if there's anything a Thompson adaptation shouldn't be, it's conventional. But even taken on its own terms it doesn't quite work like it should, oddly mixing romance and adventure while managing to supply only a few laughs. There was definite potential for greatness and some moments really work, but not consistently enough to amount to a worthwhile experience. And that's a shame, because my expectations were reasonably high, if you can forgive the pun.
Depp plays unsuccessful novelist Paul Kemp who on a whim gets a job as a journalist with the struggling San Juan Star newspaper in Puerto Rico, edited by the grumpy, toupee wearing Lotterman (Richard Jenkins) who immediately resents his excessive drinking and partying. Soon after his arrival he befriends the paper's photographer, Sala (Michael Rispoli) as well as the perpetually stoned and drunk Moberg (Giovanni Ribisi), a freelance reporter who can't be fired. Kemp's exploits soon catches the eye of sleazy local real estate developer Hal Sanderson (Aaron Eckhart), who offers him an ad writing job for his latest land venture. The only problem is Kemp's fascination with Sanderson's sexy, mysterious girlfriend Chenault (Amber Heard) who he was immediately taken by after a memorable ocean encounter at a party. Torn between business and pleasure, Kemp is warmly welcomed into Sanderson's fold initially, but his new friendship comes at a personal price.
There's little plot in the film but what plot there is still seems like too much. Nearly everything involving Sanderson's land deal plays as a half-hearted attempt to shoehorn all these eccentric characters into a cohesive narrative. They're all entertaining and it's easy to imagine a film where they'd all be let out of their cages to run wild instead of merely going through the motions of a partially developed romantic triangle and an awkward crusading newsmen sub-plot that takes center stage in the final act. By the end of the first hour, the story already seems to be running on fumes. That's there's still something addictive about all this is a credit to the talent of the actors involved and the fact that Robinson's mesmerizing evocation of 1960's Puerto Rico is absorbing enough to distract from the fact that the film barely connects on a dramatic or comedic level.
The biggest laughs come from the feud between Jenkins' old school editor and and Ribisi's druggie character. Always a strange type of talent who's tough to cast in anything, this might the first time Ribisi outright steals a movie from his co-stars with his unhinged craziness. His part has no aim or direction, but that's actually a relief compared to how restrained and ordinary everything else seems, especially the love triangle. While this is the most interesting Depp has been onscreen in a while, I just never got the relationship that was supposed to be developing between Paul and Chenault, probably because there just doesn't seem to be much of one. Or at least as strong of one as there should be to justify all the silly developments that occur. The risk-taking Amber Heard (who beat out her lookalike Scarlett Johansson for this part) continues to prove herself as the real deal in an underwritten role, with the movie feeling most alive when she's sharing the screen with Depp. Aaron Eckhart plays yet another expert sleazebag with duplicitous motives, reminding us that few do it better.
The movie's saving grace is Depp, who's always excelled most when not playing freaks, but somewhat normal people with off-kilter quirks. What's fun is how you can see more subdued, less cynical glimpses of Depp's Raoul Duke from Fear and Loathing taking shape in the performance. That Paul Kemp qualifies as a somewhat "normal" character for him these days is kind of scary. Unfortunately, these semi-human performances seem to only come around once a decade so even if the results are a lot less spectacular this time around, it's a relief to just see him in Thompson's universe again instead of mugging it in kabuki face paint for Tim Burton. I wish Depp would take more projects like this, only with slightly better results. Emblematic of the movie's main problem is a single scene in which Kemp and Sala go on a hallucinogenic drug trip. It's so tame, so visually uninteresting you'd think they only took an extra teaspoon of cough medicine. The whole film needed to contain the reckless abandon of two key scenes heavily advertised in the trailers and commercials. One in a convertible on the road. The other in a nightclub. They carry the promise of what this should have been.
That The Rum Diary was written by Thompson in 1961 but didn't see publication until 1998 is ironic considering it's the same year the big screen adaptation of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas undeservedly flopped in theaters before re-emerging later as a classic. One of those feels like a true adaptation while the other barely seems to have come from the same author's pen. Or typewriter. As much as I love good films about crazy writers, this one could have stood to have actually been more of a mess, truer in spirit to its source. So while I appreciated The Rum Diary for what it was, I was more disappointed in what it wasn't. The potential still exists to adapt it into a great movie. But as this attempt proves, that's far easier said than done.