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Oct302011

‘The Rum Diary’ Review - A safe film based on dangerous material

Hunter S. Thompson is my greatest influence as a writer. He took the concept of satire and reinvented it for the modern society. He was a genius and a unique individual, despite perhaps being a bit insane. Yes, I am a fanboy.

A history of Hunter

But the good Doctor was also partly a fictional construct. He became trapped inside the persona that he created through his gonzo journalism. It was one part truth, one part exaggerated reality, one part mind altering substances. The most obvious example of this is his character of Raoul Duke from his semi-fictional 1971 book, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, famously portrayed by Johnny Depp in Terry Gilliam’s adaptation.

The thing about HST’s works is that it they are all heavy in themes. While at the forefront were typically things like trying to buy monkeys off of overweight carnival handlers in shady, circus-themed casinos, or convincing members of the press that a Presidential candidate was hooked on a rare South American narcotic, his writing all had a purpose. The Rum Diary tries to honor that. It just isn’t very good at it.

Meet Paul Kemp

Paul Kemp is a New York novelist that hasn’t yet found his voice. He heads to Puerto Rico to take job as a journalist at the San Juan Star, but Puerto Rico of the 1950s isn’t quite the tropical paradise the travel agents have been pitching. The people are starving, and the fat cats are laughing as corruption isn’t just accepted, it is how things are done. Despite his best efforts, Kemp is drawn into the scene and finds himself in a love triangle, a possibly illegal business deal, and a homemade rum that could make a robot tipsy.

Kemp is HST’s somewhat idealized version of himself from when he was working for a small sports paper in Puerto Rico. He is a younger, less crazy, more fictionalized version of HST than Raoul Duke, but the fundamentals are the same. That said, it's good that Depp has kept the role. It would have been criminal to let anyone other than Depp play a version of Thompson. He owned that role in Fear and Loathing, and it would hard to accept anyone else.

But it isn’t the same character, nor is it meant to be. They are similar, but Kemp is much more toned down than Duke. Kemp is a borderline alcoholic, but he isn’t likely to strap on a dinosaur tail after a bender on drugs that were made from a human adrenaline gland—at least not yet. Depp’s performance reflects that, and he is the best thing in the film, but the nature of the story and the focus doesn’t do him any favors.

Social commentary

Aaron Eckhardt and Amber Heard both do their jobs and are very attractive as a greedy business man named Sanderson and his eye-candy and third point on a live triangle girlfriend, Chenault. Respectively, or course. Aaron Eckhardt is a very pretty man, but it would make for a different movie if he were the love interest.

About halfway through, The Rum Diary does something weird but predictable—it tries to become a social commentary. And why not? Sanderson is a great stand-in for the stereotypical 1-percenter that audiences can rage at. He is ultra-smooth, has the girl our hero wants and treats the local poor like scum. He might as well have punched a baby just to confirm the that he is, indeed, a dick.

Kemp is still trying to find his footing, and at first is ok with Sanderson and his promises of big bags of money. But along the way Kemp begrudgingly develops a conscience of sorts, and decides to see if the corporate fat cats in their ivory towers can smell the smoke from the bridges he plans to burn. It is a timely tale with everything going on these days.

A lack of humor and direction

What makes HST’s stuff work in general is the humor, and that is mostly gone in The Rum Diary. There are still funny parts, some very funny, but too much of the film is spent with Kemp being passive. HST was a lot of things, but passive wasn’t one of them. HST fan or not, the film just drags as Kemp tries to get to the point you know he is going to get to. It is a predictable journey, broken up by some original plot points, but it isn’t until the end that the film seems to find its legs.

Writer/director Bruce Robinson (Withnnail and I, Jennifer 8) seems unsure of exactly what he wants. There are so many opportunities for the film to really push the boundaries and make a real point, but instead it takes a more moderate tone, which is dull.

No real payoff

There are a lot of great moments to The Rum Diary, and the best are when Depp channels his inner-HST and begins to spew forth some truly original dialogue. Once he rallies and finds his purpose, the film picks up and seems to head for a wild conclusion, but then it veers off back towards being social commentary for modern problems. That would be fine, but it should have gone farther. It needed to really push the edges, but ends up being too calm for its own good. It falls into a lull, and despite the R-rating, it never really does anything too risky. It hints at it, it talks about it, it even sets up a few scenes that seem to go much further than the comfort level would like, then it backs off.

The Rum Diary is a safe film based on dangerous, antagonistic material. Bruce Robinson hints at its potential and tries to mix in some current themes, but then stops just short of offering up any real payoff.   

Rating:  (Decent)

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