October 14, 2011 at 10:48 am #41175
Variety is mixed on the film, not impressed by Depp’s performance:
The Rum Diary
Stronger on dreamy, seedy atmosphere than on narrative coherence, FilmDistrict’s exotic curio should draw the overlapping Depp/Thompson fanbases but will command general auds in, well, moderation.
By Justin Chang
Johnny Depp has a drink with Aaron Eckhart in “The Rum Diary.”
“Absolutely nothing in moderation,” states the tagline for “The Rum Diary,” and Johnny Depp lives up to it by getting sloshed for the better part of two hours. Yet temperance of a different sort, a willful abstention from trippy stylistic excess, is what makes this 1960-set Caribbean picaresque easily the most lucid screen adaptation of Hunter S. Thompson’s work, even if it’s still several drafts shy of a fully developed yarn. Stronger on dreamy, seedy atmosphere than on narrative coherence, FilmDistrict’s exotic curio should draw the overlapping Depp/Thompson fanbases but will command general auds in, well, moderation.
Thompson was in his early 20s when he wrote his semi-autobiographical second novel about hard-nosed American newspapermen drinking, screwing and occasionally writing amid the social upheaval of late-’50s Puerto Rico. The manuscript went unpublished for nearly 40 years before it was finally excavated (with Depp’s help) and printed in 1998, offering the public a rare dispatch from the author’s pre-gonzo years; though recognizably Thompson in its first-person account of lust, lucre and liquor, “The Rum Diary” merely hinted at the heavy drug use and reckless blurring of fact and fiction that would define his style.
By dint of its source material, then, writer-director Bruce Robinson’s long-aborning screen version never devolves into a catalog of aggressively stupid acid-trip behavior a la 1998’s “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas”; this may disappoint extreme Thompson buffs but will make “Diary” that much more palatable for a wider viewership. The chief similarity between the two pics is that both star Depp as a substance-abusing scribe who can’t seem to control his vices or stay on assignment in an unfamiliar environment.
It’s 1960 in San Juan, a tropical shark tank where U.S. business interests run rampant, the locals harbor bitter anti-American sentiment and the fourth estate occupies the lowest, dirtiest rung of the social ladder. Paul Kemp (Depp) has just arrived to work at the San Juan Star, run by a cantankerous editor (Richard Jenkins), who takes one look at Kemp’s bloodshot eyes and warns him to lay off the liquor. Fat chance, so long as Kemp is rolling with the colorful likes of world-weary photographer Sala (Michael Rispoli) and wild eccentric Moburg (Giovanni Ribisi), who likes to experiment with narcotics and listen to old recordings of Hitler’s speeches.
Early passages in particular are notable for their bracingly sharp, tangy dialogue, much of which is written from scratch; fans of Robinson’s all-too-infrequent work (“Withnail and I,” “Jennifer Eight”) will recognize and relish the literate sensibility at play here. The scribe-helmer also has productively reshuffled and consolidated figures from the book, eliminating one major character and handing a prominent role to Sanderson (Aaron Eckhart), a suave, well-heeled American businessman who brings Kemp into his inner circle.
Hoping to elicit favorable copy about a shady real-estate deal, Sanderson dangles a number of gifts before Kemp, the most tantalizing being his own g.f., Chenault (Amber Heard, recently of NBC’s “The Playboy Club”). An arrestingly foxy vision in white bikini and red lipstick, Heard drives two of the picture’s most indelible sequences: one in which Kemp and Chenault take Sanderson’s Corvette for a spin, and another in which the girl loses herself amid a writhing tangle of bodies on a dance floor.
Lurching from these moments of pulse-quickening eroticism to Kemp and Sala’s unruly misadventures, “The Rum Diary” executes its tonal backflips with the woozy grace of an amiable drunkard. Mercifully, there’s only one obligatory scene of psychotropic hallucination, and in this fairly restrained context, its grotesquerie is almost exquisite.
Conjuring a sweaty, sordid ambience through d.p. Dariusz Wolski’s Super 16 lensing and use of mostly natural light, the film as a whole is best appreciated as a succession of richly rendered moods, plenty stimulating in the moment but rarely coalescing into something greater. The novel, though similarly ragged, was held together by Thompson’s tough vision of a harsh, lawless Puerto Rico succumbing to the West’s parasitic influence; what little of this makes it onscreen has been soft-pedaled, its fearsome violence reduced to the level of a hangover.
Robinson attempts to elevate Kemp’s moral stature by molding him into an avatar of stick-it-to-the-Man justice, a muckraking pen wielded against society’s “bastards,” according to the film’s closing dedication to Thompson. But this aim is frustrated, surprisingly, by the casting of Depp, who, though one of the project’s driving forces, seems weirdly unfocused and disengaged in a role for which he’s at least 20 years too old; the thesp gave a much more flavorsome, gonzo-esque turn as a cartoon lizard in this year’s “Rango.”
Supporting actors expertly pick up much of the slack. Eckhart and Jenkins are perfectly cast; Ribisi, in a hilarious live-wire perf, is like a drug that can be counted on to deliver a ferocious jolt; and Rispoli invests his cynical shutterbug with a rewarding emotional undercurrent.
Production designer Chris Seagers applies subtle ’60s touches to Puerto Rico’s sun-kissed exteriors and grotty interiors, an effect furthered by Colleen Atwood’s retro costumes. The jazzy, flowing rhythms of Christopher Young’s score provide a continually sultry backbeatOctober 14, 2011 at 10:50 am #41177
HRep is a bit better on Depp and and the film overall
The Rum Diary: Film Review 12:01 AM PDT 10/14/2011 by Todd McCarthy share
19 The Bottom Line
A diverting but uncompelling look at Hunter Thompson’s coming-of-age in Puerto Rico 50 years ago, courtesy of Johnny Depp.
Friday, Oct. 28 (FilmDistrict)
Johnny Depp, Aaron Eckhart, Michael Rispoli, Amber Heard, Richard Jenkins, Giovanni Ribisi, Amaury Nolasco
Aaron Eckhart, Michael Rispoli and Amber Heard star in director-screenwriter Bruce Robinson’s big-screen adaptation of the novel.
Given that it’s been on the shelf for two years and never popped up on the festival circuit, the whiff of trouble has hung over The Rum Diary for some time, so there is relief in discovering that the film is not so bad after all. Robinson wrote and directed one of the most memorable entries in the annals of alcoholic cinema, Withnail & I, and a certain affinity can be felt. But what’s sorely missing here is the raffishness and rudeness of the 1987 English film, as well as some concomitant spark in Depp’s performance that would hint at the wild man, and talent, to come.
Thompson wrote The Rum Diary, his second attempt at a novel, in the early 1960s, after having spent a year or so trying, without much success, to be a newspaper reporter in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Depp, so the story goes, found the unpublished manuscript in the writer’s Colorado home sometime in the 1990s, urged him to finally publish it and started plotting a film version. Heavily autobiographical, the book dwells on the depredations of newsmen in a world that today is nostalgically regarded as both seedy and glamorous.
So youthful does Depp continue to look that it never seems odd that he’s playing a journalist at the beginning of his career. Unlike Thompson himself, who was barely past 20 at the time of his Caribbean sojourn, his fictional alter ego Paul Kemp readily finds a position with the ragtag rag The San Juan Star, where high alcoholic intake is a job requirement; asked about his drinking habits, Kemp replies, “I suppose at the upper end of social,” which is good enough for bedraggled editor Lotterman (Richard Jenkins).
Taken under wing by 40ish staff photographer Sala (Michael Rispoli), an engagingly mangy sort who by now seems too acclimated to the tropics to ever leave, Kemp tries to behave himself, even after meeting the bewitchingly sexy Chenault (Amber Heard), the flirty fiancee of Yank entrepreneur Sanderson (Aaron Eckhart). Very smoothly, the businessman lures the susceptible scribe into his web, with the covert intent that favorable coverage in the Star will help him and fat cat government-connected developers pull off a real estate scam giving them exclusive building rights in a privileged portion of paradise.
Kemp is alert enough to pick up the warning signs and even goes on the wagon for a while to regain his balance. But Sanderson gains the upper hand by bailing him out of jail and the myriad benefits of going along, including cash, a gratis red Corvette, deluxe vacation destinations and, decisively, the continued presence of Chenault, prove too much. The story thus emerges as a contest between the seductions of corruption and summoning the strength to do the right thing. Given the source, it’s not at all surprising that the path to moral clarity is provided by a raving lunatic, Moberg (an excellent Giovanni Ribisi), a one-time Star staffer too far gone on booze and drugs to function but whose reckless advance through the doors of perception positions him as a precocious forerunner of the counterculture to come.
Despite this link between accepted/current and illicit/future forms of mood enhancement, as well as the “bad influence” theme reminiscent of Withnail, The Rum Diary remains a relatively mild diversion, not at all unpleasant but neither compelling nor convulsive. This stems in significant measure from the diffident nature of Depp’s character; hiding behind dark shades much of the time and affecting a hipster stance while remaining relatively cautious and noncommittal, Kemp doesn’t inspire strong engagement. Strangely enough, there’s a dose of Jack Sparrow in the characterization, albeit without the weird makeup and accoutrements, in that Kemp sort of bumbles into situations in a faux-innocent way, without particular focus or intent, and somehow muddles through. Without the allure and quirkiness that Depp provides, Kemp would be a pretty innocuous fellow, especially in comparison to some of those surrounding him.
A fine character actor heretofore without the benefit of a defining role, Rispoli excels as a garrulous lensman who’s probably talented but seems destined to a second-rate existence due to laziness and significant character defects. Although his phony wig is played for laughs, Jenkins’ frazzled editor might profitably have been more pitched toward outright comedy to provide the film with more tonal variety.
Conceptually, Chenault is a stock fantasy character, a teasingly unavailable object of desire designed to mesmerize. Many a pretty young actress could have filled this requirement, but Heard charges the standard-issue role with moments of something extra, a fleeting sense of abandon, unscripted wildness, inchoate yearning that couldn’t have been planned but emerged in a fortuitous fusion of glance, turn of the head, youthful glow, lighting and camera angle. Stunningly beautiful, Heard creates tiny heartbreaks for this girl who is both free and trapped, one of nature’s elite and yet possibly doomed.
As very few American films have been shot there, locations representing San Juan and environs a half-century ago are suitably fresh and evocative. The eclectic soundtrack also contributes to the smartly nostalgic feel.October 14, 2011 at 11:02 am #41178
Amber heard is getting decent notices, and Giovanni Ribisi has been getting the best reviews of anyone in the cast. I think he should be added to the supporting actor contenders.October 14, 2011 at 11:59 am #41179
Good catch, Tye-grr