Monday, October 31, 2011

Love: The Rum Diary

Like any respectable pop culture junkie, I went through my Hunter S. Thompson phase.  I chose Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas for an independent reading assignment in my junior year of high school and found a soft spot for all things Gonzo.  This means that no, I can’t hear “White Rabbit” without requesting that someone attempt an electrocution at the song’s climax.  Please, that goes without saying.  It also means that yes, I’ve read Thompson’s ‘long lost’ novel.  When I read The Rum Diary oh so long ago, the impression it left was one befitting of a work by Mr. Thompson: it comes in flashbacks and waves; tangible short bursts and colorful scenes without incident.  The book itself is muddled, but enjoyable enough.  There are plenty of bright pieces and memorable tableaux to be found: the drinking, the girl, the carnival, the decrepit newspaper and laboring masses; alcohol-soaked Puerto Rico remembered through a hangover-like daze of poorly linked, often humorous incidents.  The Rum Diary, in my opinion, was never a story to be taken as a cohesive work with a straight narrative arc.    Instead, it’s something tangled and a little broken, an early attempt by a young author loaded up like a jumbled pile of stained postcards from the edge.  Perhaps you love it, perhaps you find it listless, perhaps you simply don’t care (in which case, I wouldn’t recommend bothering).  Any which way you approach it,  from page to screen there’s a surprising amount of love invested in getting this messy little novel’s film transition just  right.  For my money, it succeeds.
Most are familiar with Johnny Depp’s bromantic love affair with the late great Hunter S.  He admired him, and had a personal history with the man after getting to know him for that Criterion captured role in Terry Gilliam’s Fear and Loathing.  For Depp, The Rum Diary is clearly a passion project, and one that glows with an odd warmth.  Depp no doubt realizes The Rum Diary wasn’t a fully realized text, it doesn’t have the spark of those later works and drug filled trips into pure psychedelia.  What it does have is a semiautobiographical origin story; the humble beginnings of the man who would be Gonzo.  The story is centered on Paul Kemp (Depp), a supposedly youngish writer with dreams of novel-penning sidelined by punching out journalistic pieces for profit.  It’s 1960, and Kemp moves from New York to the rum-soaked newsroom of the San Juan Star, a newspaper nobody reads and which its reporters never seem to write for.  The staff is a motley crew of boozers, losers, degenerate Hitler-aficionados, experimental drug-takers, and tenement dwellers.  They sweat and drink and eat and sleep in and then do it again.  It should come as no surprise that Kemp, who we see blasted, red-eyed, and crazed in the opening scene, fits right in.  Within no time he’s falling hard for the flaxen-haired dame (Amber Heard), getting wrapped up in real estate schemes, cock fighting and visiting hermaphroditic witch doctors.  There’s a tremendous amount of humor gleaned from these disparate situations, and ample opportunities arise for the creation of the sort of vivid scenes Thompson specialized in.  We get to see Aaron Eckhart be an asshole (not much of a stretch), Richard Jenkins go full-blown physical comedy, and Michael Rispoli deliver a performance which makes us really ask his name.   We’re also gifted with Giovanni Ribisi in fine form, stealing many a scene in a state of intoxication so advanced he reminded me of the Aristocats’ leering, sherry swilling goose.

As much as it pains me to admit it, Depp isn’t so young anymore (he’s 48), and while he’s still boyish at certain angles, he reads as a little old for a budding writer.  Still, when you watch him, you don’t question the casting.  While he may have pulled Bruce Robinson out of retirement to direct, this is, in many ways, Depp’s project.  And, honestly, I’ll be damned if there’s anyone I’d rather watch attempt Hunter S. Thompson’s pirate-like swagger.   For Depp, I imagine the film is a sort of living memorial.  It’s a memento, an homage, and a sweet farewell for a friend.  There’s something special about The Rum Diary, even as it toys with screwball conventions and boring attempts at cobbling together an overall ‘point’.  As a film, it’s unlike any comedy you’re likely to see this year.  Sure, it’s eccentric and louche, occasionally sinister and bristling with political tension, but the oddities are never played as defects.  The Rum Diary doesn’t apologize and instead uses its time concocting something delightful, full of energy and guiltlessly funny.  It may not be perfect, but it works with the assets it has.  In this tropical habitat, Depp is charmingly restrained, playing Thompson’s alter ego before his glorious descent.  It’s been a long time, but we finally got the man away from the lure of the giant blockbusters and studio constraints.  He’s enjoying himself beyond playing dress-up, and it’s clear he believes in this character. 


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