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Saturday, October 29, 2011

The Rum Diary


The best thing that can be noted about "The Rum Diary", other than the ever-amusing antics of an inebriated Johnny Depp, is that it's filled with love for the author of its source material. Depp and notorious gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson were close, personal friends, and Depp, having portrayed another one of the writer's alter-egos in 1998's "Fear and Loathing In Las Vegas", struggled to adapt Thompson's novel for years. After it was finally shot in 2008, it sat on a shelf growing mold for some time, waiting for an editor and a distributor. At long last, "The Rum Diary" is here. And although it can't quite capture the writer's fervent belief that ink could be as caustic as hydrochloric-acid, the film is best taken as a passion piece for Depp and a warm tribute to his dear friend and mentor, who unfortunately took his own life some six years ago.

As a red biplane soars ethereally through the frothy cumulus of Puerto Rican skies in 1960, Depp's Paul Kemp stumbles awake to see its tail banner welcoming the visitors of an American industrial carbide company. The island, at the time, was an American colony in every sense but semantics. The "territory" was a cruise ship hotspot for gluttonous American tourists seeking the American Dream at 50 bucks a night. All the beaches had been bought up by developers looking to get rich -- the locals are shoed from the sand like raccoons encroaching on a rickety porch. Kemp comes from New York to write horoscopes for the imperialist's only newspaper, The San Juan Star, a collapsing outlet full of zany scribes. (Giovanni Ribisi's titubate Moberg is a filthy, grumbling drunkard of the highest order; Editor Edward Lotterman (Richard Jenkins) is a cynical hairpiece on the verge of a nervous breakdown; and Michael Rispoli's Bob Salas becomes Kemp's corpulent, hell-raising sidekick).

Kemp wanders around the island like a confused drunken Martian and, upon seeing the squalor of the Puerto Rican children, finds a journalistic cause. Soon after, an American businessman (Aaron Eckhart) -- with a saucy and angelic young girlfriend (Amber Heard) -- hires him to write the travel brochure for a spiffy, lavish resort. He finds himself with a moral conundrum. On the surface, the film's a droll, rum-induced escapade with gorgeous locales (those beaches, that sky!), quirky characters, cool period cars and clothes, and a hip island soundtrack. On deeper examination, it makes dated, but interesting remarks about the avarice of capitalism in Puerto Rico while outrage about communists in Cuba was beginning to take hold. The hypocrisy is maddening and "The Rum Diary" becomes Thompson's "paradise lost" (the American military used the island for carpet bombing practice). His naivete goes with the last drop of rum and what's left is an activist on a crusade against "the bastards". His plight would reach a pinnacle in the early seventies with his famed road trip to fabulous Las Vegas.

However shapeless and murky, Terry Gilliam's "Fear And Loathing..." was radical and imposing. Writer/director Bruce Robinson's "The Rum Diary" is just too safe. Love it or hate it, the former film demanded a reaction. This one is dramatically loose, stagnant and directionless. At 120 minutes, it's really not all that long, but it sure starts to feel that way. The love is there, especially from Depp who succeeds in humanizing Thompson like never before; it's a valiant and commendable remembrance to his fallen hero. But I doubt either artist would have preferred a requiem of such quick disposability.

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