Tuesday, November 15, 2011

The Rum Diary (2011)

Title: The Rum Diary (2011)

Director: Bruce Robinson

Cast: Johnny Depp, Michael Rispoli, Giovanni Ribisi, Aaron Eckhart, Amber Heard, Richard Jenkins


I was looking forward to finally seeing The Rum Diary for various reasons: number one being that I’m a huuuuge fan of Hunter S. Thompson’s work, so this being an adaptation of one of his “lost books” well, of course I was excited to see it come to life on theater screen. Second: the story takes place entirely in Puerto Rico, and they actually went ahead and shot the film in Puerto Rico, so I was excited as hell to see my country in a film, by the way, I want to go right ahead and say that Puerto Rico looks beautiful on this film. Another selling point for me was that this is a film based on a Hunter S. Thompson book, I was looking forward to a heavy dose of Gonzo madness for the evening. Sadly, I was a bit disappointed with the film adaptation of The Rum Diary. If you are so inclined, please keep reading and find out why.

The Rum Diary presents us with Paul Kemp, a writer who’s just arrived to Puerto Rico (during the 1950’s) to begin working for The San Juan Star, an English language newspaper that ran in the island for years and years. When Kemp arrives he is confronted with a heated political climate amongst the Puerto Rican people. A lot of that heat stems from the clash between the American and the Puerto Rican cultures. During those years, there was a very strong anti-American sentiment going on in the island, and depending on who you ask these days, that feeling still exists. Puerto Ricans would call Americans ‘Gringo’s’ and the Americans would call the Puerto Rican’s ‘Jibaros’; neither one had any desire to understand the other. This is the reason why when Hunter S. first arrives at the San Juan Star, he is welcomed by a bunch of Puerto Ricans screaming things like “Gringo go home!” and the such. American’s saw Puerto Rico as a land of business opportunity; a land where hotels, casinos and resorts could bloom and prosper. Puerto Rican’s saw the Americans as invaders coming here to take advantage of the land. Amongst all the madness, Kemp meets his new boss and co-workers, most of which are a bunch of washed up has beens that resort to drunkenness to deal with the current state of their lives. Kemp’s first assignments include writing the horoscope and sports section; not exactly the most exciting of assignments for Kemp. So when Sanderson, a big money entrepreneur wants to pay Kemp to write a  series of brochures to sell the idea of making a huge hotel on a nearby island, Kemp considers it. Will Kemp form a part of this business venture?

The Rum Diary was a novel that Hunter S. Thompson had written back in the 60’s and is based on the experiences he had while living and working in the island of Puerto Rico. Thompson had ignored the novel for many years because it had gotten rejected many times over by many publishers. But when Hunter S. Thompson and his writing became increasingly popular, then they were salivating to print one of the first novels he’d ever written. And so, even though this novel was written during the 60’s, it actually ended up getting published in 1998. I like the book a lot, it captures what Puerto Rico was like during the 50’s, commenting on the growing boom in businesses and development that was going on in the island. I enjoyed reading about Kemp’s adventures through streets that I walk through all the time; this is something the film also got right. The filmmakers actually went out and filmed on the beaches and areas of old San Juan where Hunter S. Thompson had his adventures in. This gives the film a level of authenticity that I enjoyed. The novel (and the film as well) addressed Puerto Rico’s eternal political climate. Should we be independent of the United States? Should we be another state? Should we be a common wealth and have the best of both worlds? These three ideologies have always divided the Puerto Rican people, even to this very day and I found it so interesting that it was just as much of an issue in the 50’s as it is today.

Hunter S. Thompson, enjoying the beaches of Puerto Rico. Notice the hotel in the background. 

Other issues the film addresses are still relevant for the Puerto Rico of today. Hotels have taken over the coasts, nowadays there are so many hotels in the San Juan area that you have to pay to see the ocean. And that’s a big part of what Paul Kemp is against in this story, he doesn’t know if he should be a part of this rampaging capitalism, building and building and building. I recently went to a Hotel right smack in the area where Hunter S. Thompson lived and wrote what we now know as The Rum Diary, and all I can say is, I’m glad I wasn’t the one paying! A breakfast for four was well over a hundred dollars! And we’re talking about breakfast here people! Eggs, ham, juice; for a hundred bucks? Get out of town! There is a character in the film called Sanderson, he is the developer who wants to make the hotels, at one moment in the film he looks at the beach and says “an ocean of money, waiting to be made!” And that’s how developers see Puerto Rico; they don’t care about eliminating beautiful natural areas that people can enjoy for free, nope, the only thing they care about is making their hotels for the rich people who can afford them. In the book, Kemp muses about the beauty of the island, and nature, and he wonders if it should all be destroyed so that tourists can come and waste their money on casinos.

Of course this is the kind of subject matter that Hunter wrote about, he spent a huge part of his life traveling from hotel to hotel, from casino to casino, from hotel bar to hotel bar. Even Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1994) takes part mostly in hotels and casinos. He knew what he was talking about, he lived in hotels for a huge part of his life, but he hated the fakeness of it all. Why switch nature for fakeness? These are the things Paul Kemp partially muses about on this film. One thing I liked about the film were those scenes that we see Hunter S. Thompson sitting in front of his typewriter simply musing about his situation. That’s when we get Hunter S. Thompsons thoughts and mentality; thats when we get to know him. We have a couple of those scenes on this film, but in my opinion they weren’t enough. I didn’t feel I was with Hunter S. for the ride. Johnny Depp’s portrayal of the character and the way he was written, made it feel like Thompsons spirit was distant this time around. It surfaced briefly for a few seconds then hid again in the midst of the banality. One scene I did like, and it’s a scene that has Thompson talking about how he will always be a writer for the people, that was what Hunter S. was all about, but again these scenes are few, Hunter S. Thompson was a very verbal individual, he always said what he tought and it was tough titty if you didn’t like it. But on this film he is so silent, I wonder why they went with that.  

The rest of the movie? A disappointment. The way I see it, it was a wasted opportunity. Now, I’m not  saying it’s a badly made movie, cause it isn’t. I’m just saying it needed a bit more lunacy. It needed to really capture the essence of being a drunkard, which in my book it didn’t do. I mean, you see Fear and Loathing and you feel the essence and the madness of going on a drug binge. Deep and Benicio really looked wasted, they made us believe it. This does not happen in The Rum Diary. Though Paul Kemp is drinking for a huge part of the film, you don’t get that drunkenness vibe. The madness isn’t there. The big scene where everyone goes to this big carnival, it should have been this totally insane moment, with everyone drunk out of their minds, yet that’s not really what I got from the scene. They should have gone more into what it is to be an alcoholic. So many things just didn’t live up to their full potential, they had all the elements necessary to make a funny and interesting story, for some reason they chose to make it a totally lifeless film. This being a film about Hunter S. Thompson then you know that lifeless and Thompson shouldn’t even go in the same sentence.

They needed a director who was a bit more in tune with Thompson’s craziness. Bruce Robinson, the director behind The Rum Diary is primarily known for having made Withnail and I (1987); a film about a pair of friends who are all searching for their purpose in  life. It captures the bohemian lifestyle, the poverty and the uncertainty of living with very little money and a whole lot of alcohol. Whitnail and I is the story of two guys who want to be something, but aren’t exactly there yet. They are in some sort of middle ground, a limbo. And that film is great, and I enjoyed it immensely, but it’s not what I’d call an exciting film. And neither is The Rum Diary, which didn’t need to be another Withnail and I in terms of pace. Unfortunately, the themes and the characters in The Rum Diary where all screaming for something better than what we got. It’s as if you had all the ingredients to make a great Cuba Libre, but in the end you didn’t put enough rum in the mix, so you end up with a watered down drink. The result is a very banal film. The most outstanding thing about the film was Giovanni Ribisi's performance as Moburg, and even he was underused.

But what disappointed me the most was that this film wasn’t a faithful translation of the book. They tacked on an ending that never exists within the pages of Hunter S. Thompsons book. The whole third half of the film was completely made up by the writers. And so, we end up with a film that has a drug induced scene that was tacked onto it merely to connect this film with Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1994), as a way to let other people understand that this is actually a prequel to that film. And yet another disappointment was the elimination of ‘Yeamon’ the character that Kemp befriends once he gets to the island. They twisted things around beyond recognition, therefore, I, as a fan of the book, was not pleased. My point is, if your going to ignore the source material, then at least do something that’s worth a damn. In this case, they made a film that was boring and ultimately feels unimportant when it could have been so much more. Hell, even Depp didn’t bring his A-game entirely, for some reason, his voice in the film, his character, felt muted. Fans of Hunter S. Thompson won’t get enough of him and fans of the book wont get that either. You’ll just get a so-so movie that had potential, but failed to live up to it. 

Rating: 3 out of 5 


Unknown said...

I was curious to find out what you thought of this film it being set and filmed in your backyard. I've heard that it isn't all that faithful to the book, esp. the end as I'm glad you mentioned. What a disappointment. I was pretty psyched to see this but now I think I can wait until DVD for this one. Too bad. What a wasted opportunity.

Franco Macabro said...

I tell ya, it was exciting to see this film being filmed in my backyard, it was great seeing Old San Juan filled with cars from the 50's!

Johnny Depp was super cool with everyone, signing autographs and Pirates of the Caribbean action figures for the kids.

I was almost an extra in the carnival scene, but missed out on that opportunity, sadly. I'll never forgive myself.

The film is watchable, but ultimately very "blah", dvd is a good way to go with this one. But hey, a Hunter S. Thompson fan should give it a go at the theaters, just cause its Hunter S... you know what I mean?

James Gracey said...

Woah! A couple of friends of mine are actually heading to the cinema tonight to see this. I was in two minds about going. I know you shouldn’t judge a film by its trailer, but this one looks as tepid as the reviews it has been garnering. I love Bruce Robinson’s work (Withnail and I is actually one of my all time favourite films), and Hunter S. Thompson, but reading your review has convinced me that I can just wait to see this on DVD, resting assured that I won’t really be missing much.
I like Johnny Depp a lot, but I think when he attempts to play it straight and restrained, he isn’t doing his obvious talent and acting ability any favours.
Sorry you were disappointed by it – what with loving Thompson so much and it being filmed on your home turf; it must have been such a let down.

Great write up though.

Unknown said...

I'm a big HST fan also, which is why I'm of two minds on this. I really do want to see it and judge for myself but something tells me that I'm gonna be disappointed, esp. with the changed ending of the film. Also, Depp is too old to play Kemp as written in the novel! Oh well...

Franco Macabro said...

@James Gracy: Of course I have seen worse films James! A Hunter S. Thompson fan should find some enjoyment in it, just dont go in expecting something like Fear and Loathing In Las Vegas.

I liked this one a bit more than "Where the Buffalo Roam" if thats any conselation.

Franco Macabro said...

@J.D.: It's weird because in Fear and Loathing Johnny Depp was too young to play Hunter, so they had to make him look older and on The Rum Diary he is too old to play Hunter who was in his 20's when he was in Puerto Rico.


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