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Rum Diary, The
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by Brett Gallman

"Goes down easy."
3 stars

I don't really know a whole lot about alcohol; one thing I can say with great certainty is that Hunter S. Thompson drank a lot of it. If "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas"is any indication, he was practically drowning in it by the 70s. That adaptation is one of cinema's all time great alcohol fuelled-rampages and marked the first time Johnny Depp starred in one of the tortured novelist's adaptations. Sixteen years later, Depp has finally shepherded "The Rum Diary"into theaters, which can be considered a companion piece of sorts, almost like a prequel ("The Rise of Bat Country,"as it were). Forgive me if this analogy isn't 100% accurate given my limited booze lexicon, but if "Fear and Loathing" was a big bottle of 470 proof rum, then this latest effort is more of a light cocktail.

An adaptation of Thompson's novel bearing the same name, the film takes us back to the early 60s, where aspiring author Paul Kemp (Depp) has taken off to Puerto Rico in an attempt to turn words into money by working at a struggling newspaper. After befriending some locals who introduce him to the virtues of rum, he spends much of his time drinking and struggling to write. When local land baron Sanderson (Aaron Eckhart) recruits him for his latest land grab, Paul uncovers an underhanded scheme to exploit the land and evict its locals.

This is a fairly worthy follow-up to Terry Gilliam's film; it certainly lacks the manic energy of that effort, which is basically the projection of a drug and booze-addled mind. As the protagonist here hasn't quite succumbed to the addiction, it follows that the film is a bit more of a breezy affair set against a convincingly sweaty period backdrop. It isn't a very tough film, nor is it deeply ruminative, but I think it does help to round out the cinematic portrait of one of the 20th century's most enigmatic figures. Technically, it isn't completely autobiographical, even though Thompson did once head to San Juan to become a sports journalist.

Still, it's hard not to consider Paul Kemp to be a stand-in for Thompson, as he shares many of the same anxieties, such as distrust for authority and indignation towards injustice perpetrated by bastards in general. One can see the faint light of optimism still shining through, as the author's ideals of the American Dream hadn't been completely savaged yet. There's that great moment in " Fear and Loathing" when Thompson writes about looking back at "the high water mark" of American idealism, back " before the wave finally broke and rolled back." "The Rum Diary" captures that wave as it's rising; in fact, it's gaining steam and ready to pounce as soon as Paul can find a target.

Depp is of course pretty much completely attuned to the character, having practically already played him over a decade ago. He still speaks with that same offbeat inflection and deadpans his way through a consistently witty script. His Paul Kemp is infused with a nice touch of humanity instead of being a borderline anarchic sociopath; perhaps he isn't as infectious or memorable as Raoul Duke, but he's probably a bit more affable. This is one of the more understated performances Depp has given recently, as he remains fairly low-key, and not nearly as twitchy. Even though he's not meant to be the same character, the film often plays that way, as a couple of the biggest laughs come from his insistence that he'll never touch alcohol again. "Imagine what it must be like to be an alcoholic," he muses, a line whose humor requires knowledge of what Thompson would eventually become.

As Depp plays it straight, the big scenery-chewing is left up to Giovanni Ribisi as the raving lunatic who introduces Paul to both rum and recreational drugs, and his grunginess is palatable; he's a harbinger of things to come, perhaps. The rest of the cast is well-suited, including Amber Heard as the blonde bombshell who's clearly bored by being Sanderson's trophy fiance. She becomes a muse of sorts to Paul, who is doing just fine until she swims into his life and effectively wreaks havoc on his soul. This sets up a love triangle with Eckhart's character, who is a typically possessive gringo all too eager to show off his wealth.

The biggest problem arises when the narrative seemingly doesn't really know what to do with all of the characters; the film ultimately doesn't commit to being anything too weighty. Seemingly the most interesting part of the story (Kemp's journey towards a purpose) gets a bit lost among the various other threads. While brief moments of introspection come (with Thompson's prose sounding as lyrical as ever coming from Depp's mouth), they are a bit few and far between.

Oddly enough, "Fear and Loathing" was an almost excessively pointless film that had a lot to say about listlessness; this is a much more structured, conventional plot that's leaner and more obvious. That extends all the way to the ending, which is akin to that of a romantic fairy tale in its insistence that the good fight was only just beginning. I think Thompson himself would feel much more cynically now, as the bastards are still out there, winning.

But if there's anything to take away from "The Rum Diary," it's that they don't have to be, even if it feels like that message washed up in a bottle while you were sipping martinis on a nice Caribbean shore.

link directly to this review at http://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=20625&reviewer=429
originally posted: 10/28/11 23:15:29
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2011 Austin Film Festival For more in the 2011 Austin Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

2/29/12 mr.mike Loses mucho steam towards the end. 3 stars
10/30/11 Jeff Wilder Lightweight as all get out. But fun enough. 3 stars
10/30/11 AARON LONGG Look, guys! Phineas just outed himself as a retard! 4 stars
10/28/11 Phineas FUCK Johnny Depp and FUCK HUNTER THOMPSON. Crashing overrated bores,both of them 1 stars
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  28-Oct-2011 (R)
  DVD: 14-Feb-2012


  DVD: 14-Feb-2012

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