Friday, November 11, 2011

Film Review: The Rum Diary (2011)

"Wow, I just realised how incredibly pretty we both are. I have nothing but pity for the normal looking."
The Rum Diary finds Johnny Depp returning to the work of his friend Hunter S. Thompson a mere thirteen years after he starred in Terry Gilliam's hallucinatory adaptation of Thompson's Fear and Loathing In Las Vegas (though he did revisit the character of Raoul Duke earlier this year for a blink-or-you'll-miss-it cameo in the surprisingly fun Rango, so there's that). As in the early film, Depp plays a Thompson surrogate, this time failed novelist-turned-journalist Paul Kemp, who winds up in Puerto Rico after he applies for a job writing for a rundown paper overseen by Richard Jenkins. Having got the job, though admittedly he was the only applicant, Kemp quickly falls deeper into the bad habits that were full blown before he arrived; he spends his days drinking with a photographer (Michael Rispoli) and a Nazi-obsessed fellow journalist (Giovanni Ribisi), accidentally angering the local population and falling in love with a glamorous blond (Amber Heard) whose boyfriend (Aaron Eckhart) wants to recruit Kemp to help push through a shady land development deal.

For its first hour, The Rum Diary bounces along as a picaresque (and picturesque) romp in which Kemp finds himself stumbling through an assortment of loosely connected comic scenes with little sense of development or narrative moving the film from one to the next. Fortunately director Bruce Robinson, as the writer-director of Withnail & I, is pretty adept at making formless comedies about irascible souses, and he has a poisonous wit that lends itself well to Thompson's loping, fragmentary story. The connecting tissue between all the events and plot strands that are thrown out there aren't particularly strong, but then again they don't have to be, since the dialogue is sparky enough, and the beautifully shot setting lush and inviting enough, to carry the individual scenes along, even as the film around them appears to be standing still.

The performances are similarly engaging, with Depp bringing his aloof charm to the central role and Amber Heard radiating a sensuality reminiscent of the starlets of the period. Though Depp and Heard have considerable chemistry, the real fun for the most part comes from the misadventures that Kemp gets into with his photographer, Sala, as the two try to do just enough work so that they won't get fired, and so that they can spend the rest of their time drinking and attending cock-fights. It's during their scenes that the film indulges in its more riotous comic setpieces, including a haphazard chase in a car which has had its front seat removed, and another which ends with Johnny Depp breathing flames and accidentally setting a policeman on fire. You also get to see some serious alcoholism on display, with every other scene featuring the characters downing some concoction or other, and you'd be hard pressed to come away from the experience without a little contact buzz. I wouldn't be surprised if the film eventually ends up with its own version of the Withnail & I drinking game in a few years' time. (Though I think anyone planning to invent one might want to steer clear of the 400-plus proof booze that Giovanni and Depp quaff.) There is a fun, hazy and intoxicated vibe to the film that I found rather charming.

However, as The Rum Diary moves into its second hour, it shifts its focus from atmosphere and dialogue to plot, at which point its previously fleet pacing becomes sluggish and morose and the tone becomes jarringly sober. The main problem is that the film changes from being a loose collection of funny vignettes to the story of a writer finding his voice and deciding that he needs to dedicate his life to taking on the "Bastards" who destroy everything beautiful about the world. Whilst that is an interesting story, and seeing how Thompson/Kemp turns from the aimless, drunken figure here to the fiery, drunken iconoclast he would become could make for a great character study, it feels wildly out of place in The Rum Diary.

This needn't have been the case, though. Had the seeds of Kemp's dissatisfaction been established earlier in the story, and had the film actually been about an author searching for his voice, albeit within the context of a raucous comedy set in a tropical locale, then the point at which Kemp decides that his voice is one of "rage and ink" would have more heft to it. Yet having him suddenly blurt out that he doesn't know how to write in his own voice in the third act, then trying to cram a whole film's worth of character development into half an hour short changes both the serious and comedic aspects of the story; the former feels half-baked and the latter feels flimsy. What the film needed to do was take itself either more or less seriously, and the way in which the coming-of-age aspect of the story is crow-barred in as an afterthought ultimately renders the film a disappointment, even if it is a fairly fun one.

Grade: B-