Monday, October 31, 2011
Doctored Interpretations: "The Rum Diary"
I found Hunter S. Thompson's early novel The Rum Diary (it originated in the 1960s but remained unpublished until 1998) to be beautifully written when I first read it years ago, and while my memories of it are somewhat hazy, I remember thinking that it could be a decent film adaptation. It contains a vibrant locale (1960 San Juan, Puerto Rico in the midst of political turmoil), and a balanced mix of characters and conflicts. Before seeing its adaptation (written and directed by Bruce Robinson), I became worried that it would try to mimic Terry Gilliam's film version of Fear and Loathing In Las Vegas. Yes, the two different books contain vastly different material, but given the cult success of the previous film, and especially since star Johnny Depp again inhabits the lead role, one wouldn't be faulted for expecting another attempt at the same hedonistic style. However, The Rum Diary, in addition to being one of Thompson's few available pieces of fiction, is also one of his most straightforward narratives. Fear and Loathing was a successful attempt at visualizing a long drug binge, and Robinson's version of The Rum Diary smartly embraces the storytelling, thereby giving audiences an interpretation of Thompson that remains honest, even if, in this case, the book proves to be more memorable.
After waking up from a night of binge drinking, journalist Paul Kemp (Depp) heads to the office of the San Juan Star, an English language newspaper in the heart of Puerto Rico. The paper is under heavy financial strain, but Kemp is nonetheless offered a job by Lotterman (Richard Jenkins), and he immediately becomes close with the staff photographer Sala (Michael Rispoli) and the often fired/rehired junkie journalist Moberg (Giovanni Ribisi). While working on dead-end assignments (including a memorable scene in which he interviews, off-camera, an American couple who are vacationing in San Juan but refuse to visit any places besides their hotel and the bowling alley), Kemp becomes acquainted with Sanderson (Aaron Eckhart), an American businessman who wants Paul to help write promotional material for (illegal) real estate deals that will eventually drive the locals into even worse poverty. Kemp quickly becomes enamored with Chenault (Amber Heard), Sanderson's fiancee, which adds further complications, especially after Sanderson bails him and Sala out of jail after a reckless night on the town. With the Star on the verge of shutting down, Kemp, Sala and Moberg attempt to bring the shady business dealings to light, even though the paper cannot risk controversial material.
With the exception of his voice, it's refreshing to find that Depp plays Kemp as an original character, rather than as an imitation of Hunter S. Thompson (even though the original novel is semi-autobiographical, it's impossible not to imagine Kemp, both on the page and on the screen, as a stand-in for the Doctor). Yes, Kemp is prone to heavy drinking and a commitment to journalistic integrity, and much like Thompson, he manages to be a detached outsider even when he's in the middle of the most important scenes. Only at the end of the film do Thompson's characteristics become consistently noticeable, and even then, Depp is as reserved as an actor can be, with the actions being based on the plot developments, rather than the character's personality. It would be too tempting to see Sala as the Dr. Gonzo character, but this only comes after a brief drug hallucination scene (the only blatant reference to Fear and Loathing) and after a long sequence of a drunken night out. Sala is written as a stock "buddy" character, but Michael Rispoli plays him exceptionally well, employing equal parts integrity and comic relief without being terribly obvious. At first, I found Giovanni Ribisi's Moberg to be grating, but I quickly realized that the character is supposed to be annoying. Moberg, while technically a journalist, is seen walking around the island like a vagrant, dressed in a comically over-sized trench coat, producing dangerous moonshine and drugs, and happily blaring phonograph records of Adolf Hitler speeches. I always consistently notice film characters who would be terribly hammed up by certain actors, but Ribisi manages to create an air of perverted slapstick. Eckhart has an strange ability to play seriously flawed/demented characters yet maintain a seductive edge; even when the audience knows he's being conniving or wrong, it's easy to see why characters would fall for his schemes. Sanderson is not nearly as twisted as Chad in In the Company Of Men, but Eckhart uses the same acting gifts. For better or for worse, his unsavory characters are compelling. That's the whole point.
The relationship between Chenault and Kemp is very basic and provides some of the film's faults. It's hard to tell if Heard is a good actress, because her character is, for the majority of the film, nothing but a trophy fiancee for Sanderson. The sexual tension between her and Kemp isn't exactly sly (their first meeting is in the ocean while she's skinny dipping), but their long stares and near-physical interactions become too obvious, and the audience is merely left counting down the seconds until they actually embrace. After that, the film's closing title sequences are too easy of an ending. However, Heard does what she can with Chenault. Even though she's an object for everyone but Kemp, the character is not played as dumb or insulting; she's merely tied to her relationship with Sanderson before she's able to break away. Depp and Heard are enjoyable to watch together, but are victimized by the script's occasional misstep.
A lot of credit has to be given to production designer Chris Seagers. The San Juan settings, especially given the era, doesn't have a lot of happy mediums. The locales are either poverty-stricken or tastefully wealthy (Kemp, Sala, and Moberg are the only whites to live in destitute dwellings). However, even though both types of settings are integral to the story, they feel authentic. Kemp and Sala's apartment is somewhat comically rendered, but the dive bars, slums, and dance halls of San Juan aren't marked by obvious (read: insulting) indicators of depression. Sanderson's residence is a classy beach house, but isn't depicted as a ridiculous mansion. Combined with the subdued cinematography and costume design, The Rum Diary works as a contrast of bright and dark hues, both casually and intentionally, with a lot of jumps between the two. Even in the extremes (Kemp's apartment, specifically), the exaggerations are pointed out in the script, but Seagers does an impressive job of creating a classic movie feel to the environments.
After leaving behind directing due to disillusionment with the Hollywood system, writer/director Bruce Robinson finds himself with a decent piece of material with which to return. His script is much stronger than his directing, but his directorial style is fairly straightforward in this film. The Rum Diary moves toward expected climaxes and developments, but Robinson writes exceptional dialogue with well-placed one liners and a knack for comedic timing, and the direction moves along with it. Again, some of the developments are cliched and can be seen coming several minutes beforehand, but these are small faults, especially since the majority of the film, combined with the excellent cast, works so well. I've yet to see Withnail and I, lauded as an excellent British black comedy, but The Rum Diary definitely has its moments of dark humor, and it will be interesting to see the differences between his smaller work and this more big budget production. On top of that, Robinson's attention to detail makes some negative aspects--binge drinking, chain-smoking, and even cockfighting--blend together as merely parts of an era, without moralizing or apology.
I would guess that the majority of people who seek out The Rum Diary will be Hunter S. Thompson fans, and I hope that they have read the novel beforehand, lest they be disappointed. Atmospherically, it's very true to Thompson's work, and shows that even his standard storytelling manages to convey his beliefs without the almost trademark insanity. Strange as this is to imagine, the film also works nicely on its own, even for people unfamiliar with Thompson's journalism or fiction. With another other people involved, I might be harsher with the criticism of the film's ending and antagonism. However, the cast and filmmaker do their respective work very convincingly, and overall, it's a lot of fun and beautifully styled. And the best compliment to Thompson is that his ideas can be separated from his constantly portrayed public persona without anything being diminished.