Release: Wednesday, October 28, 2011
Tonight I was browsing through old movies I’ve seen and just was wanting to see how they did at the big ol’ aggregator, Rotten Tomatoes. I wanted to see how many of my favorites were going to be “squashed” (get shit ratings) or succeed and look like a full, ripe tomato. I guess when I put it that way, either or sounds like a lose-lose. But I really couldn’t believe how badly this movie was being slashed…or squashed, or whatever. So I am coming to the defense of one of my favorites here, an adaptation of the first of the many infamous Hunter S. Thompson novels……
And there’s a big part of me wondering if there’s just a movie critic/popular opinion bias against the guy, or something, because I’ve read many reviews asserting that this film re-creation lacked imagination; the so-called “gonzo-ness” found in Fear & Loathing also absent, or other things that just seemed as though no one had really read the book. I just checked back at the main aggregator site and true to form, the Fear & Loathing movie didn’t fare much better with critics, either. But at least it won the popular vote. I argue that this film is as true to any of Thompson’s novels as any that have come before, and it might be even more accurate. So, if that’s what the main problem is, that there’s “no action” or not even modest inspiration in this film, open up and start reading the rum-soaked novel itself. You’ll also find there’s not an action-packed thriller in Thompson’s words. Sometimes you gotta chill out a little bit and just float along on the journey. . . .
First of all, The Rum Diary is only the second novel penned by Thompson (first published one,….Prince Jellyfish still is yet to be printed.) He was just starting off as a writer and the writing in the book hadn’t yet matured to the level of things he would later go on to publish (Fear & Loathing/Campaign Trail/America, others.) There’s a lot of rum and drinking and boozing and stumbling and signature expressions and all that in the pages but quite a few of those pages are dedicated to telling what the journalistic culture was like amid corrupt Puerto Rican times and an even more disillusioning American political climate in the 60s. Thompson’s books have always held some element of political dissatisfaction (often bordering on satirical at times), and this movie reflects that attitude in the various, long scenes fixating on the dirtier, poorer parts of the Puerto Rican landscape in which our journalist Paul Kemp (Johnny Depp) finds himself more often than not. The long scenes lend gravity to the way in which Thompson was describing the world around him, though not taking into account that the world may have also been altered at the time with the exquisite volume of liquor being consumed.
That’s why you’ll see many main characters drinking to the point of presumed lethal intoxication, but somehow they all manage. It’s a regimen for them. The story in the film — and this is where I really believe the film gets even less credit than it deserves — follows the short, troubled life of a small Puerto Rican newspaper, The San Juan Star. Kemp is hired down to try to help flesh out some stories and give the paper “life,” what little life one man can give a paper in San Juan. It is a terribly mismanaged, financially embarrassed publication held together somehow by A.L. Lotterman (so great that Richard Jenkins got offered the part!). All sorts of characters –creatures? — inhabit the space, and for a good time the movie focuses on its glorious disarray and shambling filth. That’s what the book did, too.
Guess I’m going to have to be careful to not start sounding like a snob. . .
True to the novel, the direction taken by Bruce Robinson eked its way out from the paper and began shifting between the publication and Kemp’s sudden interest in a powerful man’s land development scheme that will make both the reporter and the developer (Sanderson, played by Aaron Eckhart) extremely wealthy. Well, it’s either the land development part that’s got Kemp’s interests or his other pleasures. A woman by the name of Chenault shadows Sanderson through the film, and despite her obvious beauty, is clearly unhappy with Sanderson. Kemp and her have an almost immediate connection it would seem. Good thing Amber Heard has the part of Chenault, too. Hello? Any critic care to comment on that hire? . . . .
It seems that much of the talented cast also got overlooked on this production. I’m looking at you, Giovanni Ribisi and Aaron Eckhart. Moreso for Mr. Ribisi playing Moberg, because while I do appreciate what Eckhart brings to the screen, I had only just gotten over seeing him as the heroic mayor of Gotham City (Harvey Dent). His talents are not fully explored for this role as Sanderson, but he’s good nonetheless. But as Moberg, Ribisi gets to set on display his potential to be as outlandish a human being as possible. An über-alcoholic, Moberg is what editor Lotterman considers the scourge of his Star. In a particular scene (pic above) Moberg and Lotterman exchange some kind words, and this is one moment where it’s apparent Thompson’s creation of a crumbling infrastructure (be it a political system, the tourism industry, or something as lowly as a Puerto Rican daily paper) is both humorous and tragic. Moberg is unceremoniously fired (for the third or fourth time I think) and Lotterman loses his hair over it — literally.
Notice again how I continue to reference the movie scenes back to Thompson. . . if only passive-aggression weren’t so hard to detect in a blog. Oh well. The point is I’m starting to lay it on pretty thick, but therein lies part of my argument in defense of this release. The way Robinson lays the film out flows exactly like the lightweight novel. Sure it meanders a little and its tempo doesn’t quite kick it into cocaine-mode like the Vegas setting basically required of Thompson; of its producers, editors and actors. Conversely, The Rum Diary is a lush, steamy and rather funny account of a “straight” man (by Puerto Rican’s standards, I guess) who gets mixed up in some fraudulent business down near the Equator. You should hop on this boat if you want, but you need to really leave those expectations at the door, whether you read the book or not.
There is one formal complaint I would like to lodge against the editors, however. And unfortunately it’s something involving the ending. Forget the whole cliché of a boat riding off into sunset (yes, that’s exactly where our fearless journalist Kemp finds himself at the bittersweet hour). I’m more bothered by the second-grade-level editing avenue they pursued by placing a block of text on this image of the Gulf waters and a tangerine sunset fading into black. What this text basically explained was the fate of Kemp and Chenault. You could have gathered much of that from earlier in the film, or if you had read the book you knew what was going to happen later. Instead the editors chose not to film a lengthier cut but wanted to continue with the exposition. It was awkward and felt tacked-on. Not a fan of the final version, I will concede that much.
I am, however, a fan of Lotterman’s wig:
Recommendation: If you’re a fan of the Hunter S. Thompson books, it deserves your undivided, divided, chopped up or halved attention. Those who have yet to be swayed by the style of Thompson journalism/storytelling, maybe this won’t be your cup of tea.
Running Time: 120 mins.
Quoted: “Your tongue is like an accusatory giblet!”
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