Monday, November 7, 2011

The Ballad of a Drunkard

There are few in the United States who would not know who you were talking about were you to mention the name Hunter S. Thompson. A popular author, he is credited with the invention of "Gonzo Journalism", or planting yourself so deeply in the news story you are covering so that you are in fact the central character. His nonfiction books Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail still sell well forty years after they were first published, and are often reqired reading for anyone studying American Literature in establishments of higher learning. Known for his prolific drug and alcohol abuse, a complete inability (or unwillingness) to objectively cover stories, a deep hatred for Richard Nixon, and for his tragic suicide in 2005, Thompson has become perhaps more popular following his death than he ever had in his long career. Therefore it's almost sad that he has left no contemporaries in his wake; Gonzo Journalism has never seen a writer so regarded by the everyman, and that all Thompson might be leaving behind are his own words is all at once sad and hopeful: sad because there may never be another writer like him, and hopeful since as long as his words exist, so does his influence. But it's not his political work that we are here for today. In 1998 Thompson released his first published novel The Rum Diary to the public. After two failed attempts to adapt the book to the big screen in 2000 and 2002, bandying about such names as Nick Nolte, Benicio del Toro and Josh Hartnett, and with Thompson himself referring to the process as a "waterhead fuckaround" among other things, things finally got underway in 2007, with Bruce Robinson directing and writing the screenplay for the title, starring Johnny Depp as Thompson's autobiographical protagonist Paul Kemp.

Another adventure through sobriety
It is the 1950's. Paul Kemp has left mainland America for the beautiful shores of Puerto Rico, where he has taken a job as a journalist for the San Juan Star. The financially-challenged paper has him writing Astrology columns and articles about bowling alleys and American tourism, while ignoring major cultural stories as "uninteresting." The San Juan editor in chief Edward J Lotterman (Richard Jenkins) is only interested in selling newspapers, not telling people the news. As Kemp explores the ups and downs of this island, he is approached by unscrupulous businessman Hal Sanderson (Aaron Eckhart). Hal wants Paul to help them with his writing to build luxury hotels on an uninhabited island in the Caribbean, and doesn't care who he screws over to get it. Paul meanwhile is far more interested in Sanderson's fiance, the sultry and sexually provocative Chenault (Amber Heard), and wants nothing to do with Hal's gaudy rich lifestyle. Caught between a failing newspaper and an real love, failed novelist and rum enthusiast Paul struggles in his attempts to put words down on paper in his own voice.

Paul practices his "my eyes are up here" stare
Though English director Bruce Robinson hasn't helmed a motion picture since the 1992 thriller Jennifer 8, he manages to do a surprising number of things correctly in what is arguably his biggest ever stage. For one thing, he does a stellar job showing the gross division between the luxurious tourist sections of Puerto Rico and the island's destitute native villages. One is filled to the brim with ocean-front hotels, bowling alleys and casinos, catering to obese and gleeful white people, while the ghettos are littered with trash and broken vehicles, with cockfights and dirty children on every corner. In one otherwise notion-less scene, Eckhart's less-than-generous character shouts angrily at natives who watch his private beach from the jungle. The difference between the bright and sandy beach and the dark, foreboding jungle is so strong that you can practically TASTE the inequality present. Robinson surely knew what he wanted to portray most about this country's ownership of this small island, and from stories I've been privy to over the years there's little that has changed in the past sixty years, making this point as timely as it ever was.

Eckhart tries to teach Depp to act like a real person, to poor effect
Unfortunately, that's the best The Rum Diary can come up with, as the rest of the movie is a batch of seemingly but not necessarily connected set of scenes portraying everything from hits from psychadelic drugs to more literal hits, especially when Kemp and his associate Bob Sala (Michael Rispoli) are being hunted down by a lynch mob. A brief scene of Kemp and Sala debating who will be the next US President shows Thompson's intense dislike of Nixon, but the whole thing has little to do with the rest of the tale, a burden that many other scenes carry, especially in the film's final act. Worst of all perhaps is that Kemp/Thompson's writing voice is almost tossed aside, rarely making appearances and doing nothing to appeal to anyone other than Thompson's hardcore fanbase.

He might not be sober, but he can still drive... honest!
Speaking of which, one of Thompson's biggest fans is in fact Johnny Depp, playing a Thompson character for the second time in his career after headlining the cult classic Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. However, those expecting another performance to match those of Depp's more eccentric roles will be in for a heady disappointment. Obviously Depp can't be expected to match the manic energy of characters like Captain Jack Sparrow or Edward Scissorhands every time out. However, he has always seemed overmatched playing everyman roles, with last year's The Tourist a perfect example of the wrong that can come from casting him as such. He has his moments, but there is very little reason beyond bare-bones ideals to care about this alcoholic druggie with only slightly fewer scruples than his enemies, and Depp does little to raise this character above that low bar. Another disappointment is Eckhart as Hal Sanderson, a true shame since this is usually the kind of role that Eckhart could run away with on a bad day. Instead he is far too constricted by a script that portrays him as one-dimensional cipher, part of the 1% that people will blindly lash out against on principle alone. Richard Jenkins as newspaperman Lotterman is only slightly better, with at least a small amount of depth keeping him from the gutter. Jenkins pulls Lotterman up by the bootstraps, making a character who is undeniably cruel, but with perfectly logical reasoning behind his actions. A lack of real good guys is an ever-present issue with the film, with a greasy photographer played by Michael Rispoli and a neo-Nazi scrub played by Giovanni Ribisi the closest thing the film creates as allies for Kemp. With friends like these... at least the casting department got one thing undeniable right; as one of the few bright spots in 2011's worst picture nominee Drive Angry, Amber Heard gets another chance to showcase her talents as the film's main love interest. Though underutilized, Heard makes every moment on screen count far more than any of her co-stars, and even manages to coax some of the somehow elusive charm (usually in no short supply) from Depp's performance.

"Three Men on a Bike" just doesn't have the same ring to it...
With a lackluster tale that feels unfinished, broken in some places and unnecessary in others, The Rum Diary is about as far from a good day's entertainment as one can get without being a complete travesty. There are some good sequences early on, but that good will doesn't last as the film's second half is full of incomplete thoughts, harvested from the fringes of an altered mind. This isn't the film many think it should be, and it certainly isn't the film that Hunter S. Thompson - or any author for that matter - deserves as his legacy. While The Rum Diary isn't the bad movie I'd thought it might be, its lack of drive and focus turn it into a thoroughly mediocre one. When you consider Thompson's controversial career, calling a movie based on his works mediocre is really a worse fate.

No comments: