Saturday, October 29, 2011

Review: The Rum Diary

Adapted from a novel by Gonzo Journalist (and personal hero) Hunter S. Thompson, The Rum Diary is the third attempt to adapt the often unconventional works of Thompson to the screen, following Where the Buffalo Roam and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, neither of which were as successful as they wanted to be. And while The Rum Diary works it's ass off and isn't entirely disagreeable, it still can't quite get there.

Now, I don't want to be a jerk about this. The movie is well made to a point, well written and well acted and more importantly it finally puts Johnny Depp back on a slightly more serious career path after some...let's call them missteps, all of which make it well worth seeing. But it fails at several key points, the first and most important being the problem I identified when it was announced: That very little actually happens.

That's really the hardest problem with adapting Hunter Thompson works to the big screen: He lacks a direct plotline (this is much more evident in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas but that's a discussion for another time). In the book of The Rum Diary for example, very little actually happens for about 2/3rds of it. The main character (a NY Journalist named Paul Kemp) wanders around, drinking absurdly heavily, meeting a variety of well characterized people (who I suspect were based on people Thompson knew). There are a couple of minor altercations, but ultimately the plot doesn't kick in until the last act, when a pair of mildly forshadowed things happen, there's some event and then the novel just sort of ends.

The movie works all that over by jacking up some minor events in the middle into the closest thing the movie has to a conflict, trying to hammer Aaron Eckhart's Sanderson into a villain, pushing the light romance angle for all it's worth and bringing in Thompson's own politics into the character in order to give the film a point (and fans of Thompson will be amused by Kemp's thoughts on the American Dream, or his hatred of Richard Nixon). The problem with it's choice of conflict is that the characters are ultimately unable to do anything about it and that Puerto Rico is essentially the same as when Kemp arrived as when he left.

The acting is the best part of the film, with Depp in particular working his ass off, ultimately coming the closest of anything to making the movie more than the sum of it's parts. Aaron Eckhart proves once again that he's one of the most criminally underused actors working in Hollywood right now and Michael Rispoli does a great job as what amounts to a more serious version of a comic sidekick. And Amber Heard is so good in this that I'd almost call her the movie's biggest find...if she hadn't already proved how talented she was back in 2006 with All The Boys Love Mandy Lane. Oh well.

The direction is visual and stylish, doing a great job of capturing the feeling of the time and place. This is director Bruce Robinson's first film in 19 fucking years (those of you with a taste for British comedies might remember him from Withnail and I) and it'd be really great if he could be back after all this time. He also wrote the screenplay, which occasionally veers off into attempts at message mongering (which stops the film cold every time), but mostly hangs around working at being a comedy, at which it's reasonably successful. It also manages to fall into the Fear and Loathing trap of losing discipline around the middle, but it manages to hold together enough to get past it and keep going.

This is one of those mostly negative reviews that I hate to give. Everyone involved is working so hard and I'd like so much for it to succeed that I feel that I'm being unfair. I suppose my feelings are essentially grounded in that the film could be so much more. But you review the movie you've got, not the one you want, and taken on it's own merits, it's an agreeable and mostly well made comedy, with it's share of flaws, but then what doesn't. So you know what, f you're in the mood for it, then I say see it.

Elessar is a 21 year old Alaskan born cinephile and he still wonders how Thompson ever made it to 67.

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