Saw The Rum Diary over the weekend; the Hunter S. Thompson novel that was delayed in publishing for much of his life, and then made into a film that got delayed over a year after it was shot as well. I was pretty impressed with it, but not in the areas I thought it would. In a way, it’s not quite a successful film. But if you want it to be, it can be a powerful statement filled with intriguing dialogue and engaging “fuck the world” themes. I think its reception can be taken in drastically different ways from person to person (obvious sentence alert!).
The story, to the best of my description (though it seems to be more of a rambling account of a period of Thompson’s life), is about a failed novelist named Kemp who accepts a job at a terrible, failing Puerto Rican newspaper, for the steady paycheck more than anything. While there he must decide whether of not he wants to sell out and go against his journalistic ideals, or keep his own voice and stick it to the “bastards” of the world.
It’s a very different film from Johnny Depp’s other Thompson performance, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Where Fear and Loathing was an incoherent mumble through the mind of a crazy person (which makes it so brilliant that they kept the intensity going for over two hours), Rum Diary is actually more down to Earth of a story, with coherent themes. Fear and Loathing is sort of a jaded struggle to find the American Dream, from a well established writer who had a distinct voice (at least for the film) and strong maniacal ideals. Kemp from the Rum Diary actually doesn’t quite have a voice, at least from the start of the film. One could say the entire theme of the story could actually just be about finding your voice (through the power of ink). But while Kemp seems to be slightly influenced by the people around him (if not only in a reactionary sense), he still maintains a series of ideals that can’t be waivered and still walks to the beat of his own drum.
There are other plot elements, like Kemp’s infatuation with the rich guy’s fiancee, that actually seemed out of place or unnecessary. But at the same time, his lust for Amber Heard’s wooden character drove a chunk of his character’s motives. And in retrospect, I liked all of the plot elements as they appear on the whole canvas, even if I didn’t quite enjoy watching all of the paint strokes in action.
The setting of 1960s Puerto Rico is definitely something to marvel at. A lot of care obviously went into recreating that time/place, and it is very appreciated. From the sandy beach houses to the dilapidated apartments, all of the set design was pretty great in my opinion. The cinematic style of it all wasn’t as much like you’d expect if you wanted a Fear and Loathing Thompson vibe, it plays out much more like a normal movie than that. There is excessive drinking going on throughout, and some great scenes of drunken carnage (fireballs!). But more so, the excess of indulgence is represented by hangovers and a general tired glossiness to all of the characters. As if they noticeably regret doing what they’re doing, but keep doing it anyway.
There are two reasons why this movie works so well (for me). First, the script is great. Many well written scenes of dialogue, and the typical witty philosophizing of Hunter S. Thompson through Kemp’s internal narration. It’s a very funny movie in addition to being inspiring to those who like to create through destructive means. Second, this movie has a fantastic cast.
It’s always so great to see Johnny Depp acting in a non-Tim Burton movie. Hell, It’s nice not to see him as Jack Sparrow for a change as well. He can actually show off his acting ability, and even more than that, show off his judgement in picking projects that don’t completely suck. The side characters are mostly all played with enthusiasm (Richard Jenkins, Aaron Eckhart, “that guy” actor Michael Rispoli). But the guy who stole the show was Giovanni Ribisi as Moburg. It was one of those performances where you kind of hope he would stumble into each scene and take it over. It’s nearly impossible to take your eyes off him when he’s doing his thing. He plays a nearly brain damaged writer (from excessive rum drinking), and, well, he quite literally stumbles into every scene he’s in. It’s a brilliant performance. I hope he gets some awards recognition. It looks physically and mentally painful just to be that character, and that’s a testament to Ribisi being awesome.
Well, I’m sure I sound like a redundant bore, but again, I didn’t think the movie was all that spectacular as a film, but the message was. It plants in very plain sight the options that Kemp must choose between. Either sell out and work for the corporate slimeballs that will provide him with riches; or become one of the drunken, dirt-covered writers like the ones working at the failing newspaper. Doomed to be a meandering nothing of a writer, but he wouldn’t be a “bastard”. Or, do it his own way. Obviously Hunter S. Thompson chose to do it his own way, and the film provides a little of that feeling of not wanting to do what your told. The attitude of not caring whether you’re a success or not, so long as you do it with your own words, and being fine with that. It’s an attitude that not many people have (including myself to many, many extents), but most of the important ones do.
I think if you’re interested in Thompson, you’ll probably go see it without a recommendation. Seeing as it only made $5 million in the box office, I guess not that many people were interested in the project. I liked it, and think the reviews are giving less credit than it deserves (according to rotten tomatoes scores, the Footloose remake is more worthy of existence than The Rum Diary). I don’t think I could recommend it to a lot of people, because I could see people HATING it for only seeing it from a standard entertainment perspective, and not taking in the message. Also, it’s probably 20 minutes too long. You’ve got to be in it for the right reasons, I guess I’m saying.
But, regardless, I give kudos to any film where the main character receives life lessons from a lobster.
7.5 out of 10