Sony // 2011 // 120 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Gordon Sullivan // February 9th, 2012
Absolutely Nothing in Moderation
Before he was a do-anything gonzo journalist, Hunter S. Thompson lived an interesting life. After some juvenile delinquency he was forced into the Air Force, where he eventually moonlighted as a sports writer while nursing dreams of being a novelist (along with the occasional bottle) . When he was discharged (honorably!), Thompson took up a nomad's existence, travelling America and working at a number of smaller papers to pay the bills while he worked on his creative writing. He was fired from a number of posts for various disagreeable actions (including assaulting a vending machine) and eventually he needed a place to hole up where the rent was cheap and the day job at the newspaper wasn't too taxing. He landed in Puerto Rico working for a sports paper and fell in with a group of likeminded, hard-drinking individuals (including future prizewinning novelist William J. Kennedy). Thompson would go on to write a semi-autobiographical novel about his experiences there. When he couldn't sell it (or the other things he'd written), he increasingly turned to journalism, which culminated in his fame for Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. The novel, however, didn't go away. When it was discovered amongst Thompson's collection of carbons (they man apparently kept everything), he was urged to publish it. Johnny Depp decided to play a Thompson surrogate again in the film and convinced British director Bruce Robinson to helm the feature. Under their watchful eye, The Rum Diary turns out to be a fitting tribute to the late writer, though it's not always a satisfying motion picture.
Paul Kemp (Johnny Depp, Fear in Loathing in Las Vegas) is a hard-drinking novelist who needs to pay his bills. He takes a job at a failing newspaper in Puerto Rico, where the rum flows freely and you never have to drink alone. Puzzled by the contrast between the opulence of the tourists' beaches and the squalor of the island's natives, Kemp begins to investigate with his trusty sidekick, the photographer Sala (Michael Rispoli, Rounders). The trail puts them in touch with a shady PR guy (Aaron Eckhart, The Dark Knight) with plans to turn another tropical island into a tourist trap, and his girlfriend Chenault (Amber Heard, Zombieland). Kemp promptly fails in love with the girl and gets hopelessly entangled in the real estate deal, all while consuming heroic quantities of rum.
I loved The Rum Diary, but then again I have all of Thompson's books as well as the biographies published about him so take that with a grain of salt (and a shot of rum). However, even my fanboy adoration of Thompson' s work allow me to admit that his novel is more of a curiosity than an integral part of a body of work that includes classic texts like Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Since I think the novel is a bit light, why then does the movie get high marks? There are several reasons:
Bruce Robison knows his stuff. He wrote the screenplay from Thompson's novel, and he gives it a shape that the book lacks. Much of contemporary fiction isn't plot driven, and Thompson's novel is no exception. Robinson thus had to figure out how to extract an essential plot out of the novel, and he succeeds pretty well. It's still not an action-packed drama, but The Rum Diary has both an arc and enough interesting incidents along the way to hold the audience's interest. Robinson also has an ear for dialogue; he wrote one of the most quotable movies of all time with Withnail and I after all. Here he melds his own ear for dialogue with Thompson's pre-gonzo sensibilities.
That dialogue would be nothing without Johnny Depp's reading. He's one of the few people who really gets Hunter S. Thompson. This is pre-gonzo Hunter, before he'd experimented with acid and been beaten up by the cops in Chicago. Though Thompson was angry and demoralized by his lack of novelistic success and excessive alcohol consumption, he wasn't yet the raging beast of vitriol that he would become. So Depp's performance here is more subdued, but full of the tics and mannerisms that would eventually overtake Thompson's public persona.
However, as much as I love Depp, this is not his movie. Nope, The Rum Diary really belongs to Michael Rispoli as Sala and Giovanni Ribisi as the over-the-top alcoholic Moberg. Rispoli is the cynical, streetwise partner that would follow Thompson all his life, his early Dr. Gonzo. Rispoli is excellent in the role, not aping Benicio Del Toro from Fear and Loathing but giving his own spin on the sidekick role. Ribisi is like the ghost of Christmas future for Kemp: figuratively in the movie and literally in real life. He's the kind of raving, paranoid writer that Thompson would be criticized as being for most of his life, and Ribisi is transformed in the role.
The technical presentation of this Blu-ray doesn't hurt anything either. The 1.85:1/1080p AVC-encoded high definition transfer is as pristine as the beaches of Puerto Rico in the film. Colors are especially impressive, including all the cool blues and lush greens of the tropical environment. Detail is strong throughout, especially in the darker night scenes, and digital artifacts aren't a problem. The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio is also impressive; all of the dialogue is clean and clear, and the surrounds get a decent amount of use during key scenes. Extras include a pair of featurettes about the film's production and everything that led up to the adaptation.
Though I really enjoyed The Rum Diary, it's not a great film. It's a little too gonzo to please those looking for a regular drama, and not gonzo enough for those looking for another Fear and Loathing. Though its neither-here-nor-there status makes sense in the context of Thompson's biography and the novel's history, it's unlikely to please either casual moviegoers or fanatic gonzo fans completely.
Also, the lack of extras is seriously disappointing. Bruce Robinson has demonstrated over his numerous Withnail releases that he's articulate and loves to share a story or two. A commentary track featuring Robinson and Depp would put this disc into the "must buy" category without a doubt. What's here is fine, but I can't help wishing for more from people so passionate about the material.
The Rum Diary is a film with many merits. Those who like Hunter S. Thompson, Johnny Depp, Michael Rispoli, or Giovanni Ribisi should at least give this film a rental. If expectations are kept in check, there is plenty in these two hours to enjoy, and the solid Blu-ray presentation only helps the film.
Drunk, but not guilty.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 120 Minutes
Release Year: 2011
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Official Site