By Michael S. Goldberger, film critic
The more you learn about Hunter S. Thompson, whose semi-autobiographical novel, “The Rum Diary,” is the source of this curiously rambling film by Bruce Robinson, the odder he seems. He is one of those oblique icons who exist as much in our subconscious as they do in reality. Their celebrity lies within the enigma they pose.
Generally credited as the father of Gonzo Journalism, wherein subjectivity is a key component of reportage, Thompson was an adherent of William Faulkner, who believed that fiction was really “the best fact.” Hunter S. added drugs and alcohol to the mix, perhaps for fun, probably for inspiration and most likely because such were the times.
This philosophy is explained via the exploits of his thinly veiled reporter/would-be-novelist, Paul Kemp, portrayed by Johnny Depp. It is an interesting evocation of the Thompson style. Yet, ploddingly slow and obfuscated with subliminal knickknacks and dialogue that seems as obscure as it is self-important, the film is difficult to recommend.
Kemp, who has written 2 & ½ unsuccessful novels and is agonizingly searching for his literary destiny, circa 1960, washes ashore in Puerto Rico where a dying daily has hired him to write some puff in addition to the horoscope. But the sot is not so bleary-eyed that he can’t recognize a scenario of civil unrest and imperialistic injustice when he sees it.
So it only figures that, although a declared enemy of mendacity and corruption, he winds up, quite accidentally, working for a cadre of shady investors who just so happen to know what soon divested government testing area will make for a great resort site. The unintentional bait is Chenault (Amber Heard), concubine to the group’s chief smoothie.
He is Aaron Eckhart’s Hal Sanderson, the rich golden boy and direct antithesis of our protagonist. You might remember him from high school. He had everything except, you eventually found out, integrity. But he has a rationalizing rap…an arrogant adaptation of Social Darwinism that says hop aboard or miss the boat.
What makes it all the more heartbreaking is that Chenault, who the adoring Paul first sees in a real-life reverie when she pops up mermaid style next to his pedal boat, is that sort of feminine prize who, by looking the other way, legitimizes Hal’s credo. Adding to the plot complication, Paul soon falls in with a strange ilk of somewhat kindred souls.
Bob Sala (Michael Rispoli) is the seasoned stoic who takes Paul in when the newspaper decides it will no longer foot his booze bill at the hotel. A good pal, we’d have no reservations if he didn’t sponsor a gamecock. Decrepit Moburg (Giovanni Ribisi), on the other hand, is a total wild card, an anarchist/journalist/street person, but with connections.
They are the three musketeers of raging but often unclear and erratic protest. Fellow reporters who share the type of digs Bohemians need to inspire revolutionary exploits—if the germs don’t kill them first— they eventually hatch a plan to both save the failing gazette and put the world right. To make it a challenge, they’ll do it drunk and stoned.
The boy-meets-spoken-for-girl storyline is not alluring in and of itself. But rather, it’s a spinning, literary clothesline upon which to hang Thompson’s outrageous take on convention, capitalism, the news media, and whatever else passes before his blurry crosshairs. Previously disinterested filmgoers will find themselves even more so inclined.
Produced by Mr. Depp, a friend of Hunter Thompson’s who purportedly convinced him to publish “The Rum Diary” and years later even paid for his funeral, this is a personal film on steroids, rendered so by its traditional, mainstream movie budget. If done simpler and aimed at the art house, it might have better summoned its in-your-face subversivism.
Still, for the enthusiast and those who like to dabble in the angst, inner workings and elusive glory of writers, Depp etches a unique if not fully satisfying persona. The inherent anomaly is that Thompson’s cachet, until further notice, is his inscrutability. Thus, the appeal lies in trying to figure out whether or not he’s simply having a bit of sport with us.
Of course we wouldn’t be opposed to getting below the crust of contention if it would once and for all truly inform what resides in the soul of this indefatigable tester of the First Amendment. But while the fringy Johnny Depp is certainly of the right thespic suit to mine such contemplations, what we see is probably all he knows, or will allow.
Making the film all the less accessible is an annoying use of dark filters, doubtlessly employed to suggest the murky-mindedness of the episode in question. Hence, distilled to its essence, “The Rum Diary” joins “Where the Buffalo Roam” (1980) and “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” (1998) as but feature-length footnotes to a thesis still unwritten.
“The Rum Diary,” rated R, is a FilmDistrict release directed by Bruce Robinson and stars Johnny Depp, Michael Rispoli and Giovanni Ribisi. Running time: 120 minutes
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