THE RUM DIARY (2011)
Running Time: 120 mins. Rating: 3 Stars/5 Stars
MPAA Rating: R
Director: Bruce Robinson
Cast: Johnny Depp, Aaron Eckhart, Michael Rispoli, Amber Heard, Richard Jenkins, Giovanni Ribisi, Amaury Nolasco, Marshall Bell
A few years back I stood on the rim of Hunter S. Thompson’s memorial service in Woody Creek. I almost made it in on my Abbie Hoffman credentials (director of MY DINNER WITH ABBIE – ed.), but alas, was deported to the side of the road with what I call real journalists. Yammering on, I made the social faux pas of suggesting that if Mr. Thompson were alive, he might be put off by seeing shadows of his former self forced to stand outside the holy circle of the glam pack. I got quoted and my pre-booked interview with his widow was promptly cancelled.
That same integrity that I granted Mr. T at his memorial comes through his character as played again (FEAR AND LOATHING IN LAS VEGAS) by Johnny Depp. It’s not an impersonation of looks or gait, but Mr. Depp’s understanding of this writer’s soul and his burgeoning outrage at greedy human behavior. I love films where characters, especially artists or writers, find their moral compass, and that happens for Hunter in Puerto Rico, where he innocently (was he ever innocent?) takes a job as a reporter.
As written and directed for the screen by Bruce Robinson (THE KILLING FIELDS) based on Hunter’s book ‘The Rum Diary’, there is much that feels authentically remembered. Nixon, Cuba and the beginning of the great American tourist occupation are more than the backdrop. It’s a new political era. Where my parents brought back dance records and pictures of themselves smiling with the natives, this film is a reminder of what went on underneath the rum cocktails. Robinson knows how to pair up drinking buddies (see his directorial debut WITHNAIL & I). The scene where Depp drives down a hill of stairs in a tin can of a car with cohort Michael Rispoli is truly funny. I wanted more of these antics, but of course, the bad guys are on board, and in black and white. Just once, it might be nice to have them more likeable so that when the lead has to make moral choices, it’s harder …not because of the girl or money…but because the crook might actually be nice, as people often say the Republicans are.
It’s basically an all boy film, especially with the cockfights (PETA, please read the disclaimer) and Giovanni Ribisi’s derelict could use a little less screen time. The one IT girl, Amber Heard, seems out of time for the era. She’s just too television now; her assertiveness didn’t stick nor does her looks… women were more zaftig then and I never bought her death wish- joy ride as a key to her greater emotional depths.
The film is shot beautifully (Dariusz Wolski) and the scenes that focus on locale, like the café where the gringos aren’t wanted, are riveting.
In a time when so many journalists have been hoodwinked, gagged or just too pooped, it is great to be reminded that Hunter S. Thompson found his voice and wrote. As for the rum, just don’t drive.
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