The Rum Diary ✮✮
Trouble in Paradise
by Glenn Lovell
Easily the most intriguing (read adult) of the week’s new arrivals, “The Rum Diary,” starring Johnny Depp as a perpetually soused journalist in 1960 Puerto Rico, is dedicated to the late Hunter S. Thompson, author of the source novel. A nice gesture by Depp, who has been a Thompson acolyte since appearing in “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.” It’s unlikely, however, that Thompson, who went out in a blaze of self-inflicted glory in 2005, would think much of this adaptation, which, not to mince words, is a mess structurally and thematically.
Gonzo journalist and self-proclaimed wild man Thompson wouldn’t fault the film’s desultory, rudderless narrative or woozy pacing. He’d applaud these qualities. Watching this film is like downing too many margaritas in the noonday sun. What Thompson would object to would be the imposed sentimentality and sickening do-gooder vibe. This film should have been an irreverent nose-thumb at everything and anything that smacks of convention. Instead, it’s a turgid civics lesson in social responsibility, with the down-but-hardly-out hero finally sailing into the sunset to claim his true love.
Depp, who shares producer credit and had much to do with getting this scruffy little comedy green-lighted, has toiled too long in the Disney vineyard playing a pirate. And now, as ruler of his own pirate stronghold (he owns an island in the Bahamas), he may be too indebted to the Hollywood System to seriously bite the hand that feeds. Which could explain why this anti-capitalism diatribe feels so namby-pamby and conflicted. Is it about exposing the rich and fatuous ‒ represented by crooked American land speculator Sanderson (Aaron Eckhart) and his trophy girlfriend (Amber Heard) ‒ or enjoying the trappings of same?
Depp behind Ray-Bans plays Paul Kemp, a deadpan, sanitized version of Thompson. (He does, however, nail the halting Thompson cadence.) Kemp, a failed novelist, lands at the failing San Juan Star, “a lousy little Caribbean rag” that specializes in stories on tourist haunts, i.e. bowling alleys and casinos. Sniffing a lush, the paper’s editor (well-played by Richard Jenkins) asks his new hire if he has a drinking problem. “I tend to avoid alcohol ‒ when I can,” replies Kemp. Later, he elaborates that his habit falls on the “upper end of social. I’m poised to give it up.” The editor on his first submission: “Too many adjectives, too much cynicism.” Kemp, befriended by staff photog Sala (Michael Rispoli), sees himself as a crusading reporter, exposing poverty and corruption fueled by U.S. greed. The editor sets him straight. Puerto Rico, he explains in the film’s best line, is “a reluctant part of America, like England with tropical fruit.”
Directed and scripted by the MIA Bruce Robinson (“Withnail & I”), “The Rum Diary” is a talky, pretentious send-up of the island-getaway adventure ‒ Graham Greene by way of Donald Trump. On the way to that fadeout epiphany, Kemp and Sala, his Sancho Panza, experience cockfights, car chases, jail, breath-igniting hooch, an hermaphroditic oracle and a mind-altering substance “so powerful they give it to the communists.” The latter is compliments of Moberg, the paper’s crime and religion correspondent and the most memorable character in the novel. Moberg is played by Giovanni Ribisi as a pustule on legs, a barely recognizable wreck of a man who somehow has all the answers. It’s not a very good or lively performance but its built-in contradictions sum up a lot of what’s wrong with this movie.
In case you don’t figure out that this story is meant as timely political allegory, there are bill-boarded hints along the way, the most obvious including Kemp holding forth on Nixon’s legacy and the despoliation of Paradise. His American buddy’s land-grab scheme? Merely symptomatic of that “piss puddle of greed spreading throughout the world.”
THE RUM DIARY ✮✮ With Johnny Depp, Aaron Eckhart, Michael Rispoli, Amber Heard, Richard Jenkins, Giovanni Ribisi. Directed, scripted by Bruce Robinson from Hunter S. Thompson novel. 159 min. Rated R (for profanity, farcical violence, comic drunk scenes and drug use)