(Published in The City Express, The New Indian Express, on 5 November, 2011, retrieved from http://expressbuzz.com/
Cast: Johnny Depp, Aaron Eckhart, Michael Rispoli, Giovanni Ribisi, Amber Heard, Richard Jenkins
Director: Bruce Robinson
Rating: 3.5 stars
The Rum Diary grips you at the start. A vividly red two-seater plane flies over a deep blue sea, as Dean Martin’s liquid voice croonsVolare. A little later, you find out it has very little to do with the movie, but it sets the tone – amidst a series of clichés that were quotable quotes in the 1960s in which the film is set, you may be left with the impression that there is a little something, just out of the frame, that you can’t quite put your finger on.
For those who’ve read the pacy novel of the same name by Hunter S Thompson, the slowness of the film may come across as something of a surprise. Bruce Robinson, directing his first film since 1992, seems to have had trouble remembering what to do, and largely left it to Johnny Depp to piece together.
For his part, Depp, so ardent fan of Thompson’s that he funded the latter’s funeral and got the book published 37 years after it was written, looks the part of the novelist’s self-based character to the extent that one has to look twice at a photograph of Thompson at the end of the movie, to ascertain it isn’t Depp.
Depp plays Paul Kemp, a young, alcoholic, idealistic reporter who leaves for Puerto Rico on a whim, and joins the flailing San Juan Star – a paper Thompson himself tried and failed to join. His naïve ambitions of injecting the paper with a lease of life by telling the truth about the seamy side of the exotic island are crushed by a cynical explanation from his editor Edward J Lotterman (Richard Jenkins) for why he can’t disillusion his readers – “You wake them up and they start asking for their money back”.
Among a crew of world-weary journalists, Kemp finds common ground with the burly Bob Sala (Michael Rispoli) and the Religion and Crime correspondent Moberg (Giovanni Ribisi), whose substance-abuse-induced haze is only interrupted by epiphanies on colonisation – “We brought in Jesus like a bar of soap” – and trips to the office to collect his paycheques.
Kemp’s journey begins when he meets Sanderson (Aaron Eckhart), a business shark who owns a bejewelled tortoise and a private beach that he is more possessive of than his girlfriend Chenault (Amber Heard), who swims and sunbathes in the nude, and gyrates against any man she sees fit to. As he stumbles about in a series of sticky situations, Kemp has to choose among comfort, morals and both.
Fortunately, the movie portrays the era so realistically, whether it’s by the use of the word ‘artistic’ for ‘homosexual’ or its fidelity to costume and gadgets, that you’re not surprised when Kemp goes about double-crossing powerful people without ending up floating in a creek.
Straddling noir and dark comedy, The Rum Diary reminds one at times of Taxi Driver. At those times, one wonders whether it isn’t a little late in the day for this film to be shot and released. At others, it’s a little like reading back issues of Reader’s Digest, with its share of anti-communist jokes and clever (if grammatically incorrect) one-liners such as “Human beings are the only creatures on earth that claim a God, and the only living thing that behaves like it hasn't got one”. Then, one is able to immerse oneself in a willing suspension of disbelief. There are other times when Depp’s expressions, dialogue delivery, and timing have one in splits – a case in point being a scene where he checks Moberg for gonorrhoea.
There are some problems with the film, though. As with Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Depp doesn’t seem quite as comfortable playing a real life character as he is filling out an imaginary persona. And sporting sunglasses for most of the film, the actor doesn’t have the option of using his eyes to reflect the maniacal flow of thoughts detailed in the book.
Despite Kemp’s avowal to write in a “voice made of ink and rage” as he discovers the “connection between children scavenging for food, and the shiny brass plates on the front doors of banks”, the postscript comes across as more of a loving tribute to Thompson’s later success as a journalist than as testimony to the fulfilment of Kemp’s potential.
The camera work, and the subtle visual effects, keep you hooked. It’s a movie that needs a certain kind of mood, and a certain bent of mind, to be enjoyed. It’s perhaps best watched on the big screen, where it consumes the viewer.