Late Pass: The Rum Diary

Late Pass is a new column on Projector. While we see a lot of movies, we don’t always take a critics eye to them the first time around. But thanks to Netflix, Amazon, Redbox, and our local video store, we’re granted the luxury to re-watch, hit pause and reflect. Besides, we’d rather not compete with all the other voices out there picking apart the newest releases on opening day. Our good friend, professional film-reviewer and Projector-contributor Abby Olcese runs a similar column on her blog No More Popcorn called Minding the Gap, that offers up reviews of cult “classics” upon belated viewing. Without looking back as far, think of this as your trusted video store clerk’s critique. 3-5 months late, but well worth the wait.

“They know the price of everything and the value of nothing”

– Oscar Wilde (as quoted by Johnny Depp’s character Paul Kemp in The Rum Diary)

Directed by Bruce Robinson (whose autobiographical classic Withnail & I was plenty boozy) The Rum Diary is an alcohol-soaked adaptation of Hunter S. Thompson’s earliest novel, a loosely fictionalized travelogue documenting the author’s struggle to fulfill his journalistic duties while resisting the forces of corporate corruption in San Juan, Puerto Rico in 1960. It offers something of a contrast to Terry Gilliam’s beloved 1998 adaptation of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,  which threw viewers headfirst into that book’s nihilistic drug-induced weekend, with Thompson completely shirking his assignments in favor of gonzo hijinks and substance abuse, already jaded by such earlier brushes with the excesses of high society.

The world these characters inhabit is straight out of every beer advertising fantasy and catalog model shoot. Sailboats and palm trees, red convertibles and blues lounges… But the way Robinson captures the panoramic scenery and period fashions with such vibrance begs to ask; is Rum Diary’s vacation-brochure style any more sensationalized or less valid than Wes Anderson’s retro-pastels, or Alejandro González Iñárritu and Spike Lee’s use of hot colors? By comparison, Robinson’s use of cool colors and smokey dark filters lends the film a look that’s certainly just as fitting and no more outrageous than Terry Gilliam’s visually surrealistic take on Thompson’s weirder years.

The film’s only major stumbling block, upon which I would agree with the critics, is that no story about Hunter S. Thompson’s exploits really needs a love interest or romantic undercurrent. The romance of Thompson’s misadventures is inherent; his love interests more chemical than human. The “hot blonde in a red dress” character of Chenault, played by Amber Heard, is the film’s biggest anchor to its commercial leanings. And though Heard certainly delivers in the sultry role, she’s an afterthought compared to the strong supporting performances by Aaron Eckhart as the slimy and corrupt real estate developer and Giovanni Ribisi as unhinged fellow journalist Moburg– whose character serves as a cautionary tale of what might become of Thompson’s stand-in character Paul Kemp if he overstays his visit to this debauched tropical paradise (and something of an analog to the real-life Thompson in his later years, introducing the film’s main characters to LSD and a home-distilled flammable “600% proof” alcohol).

Amber Heard fulfilling the male fantasy as she and Depp’s character cruise the coast

Giovanni Ribisi as the rarely-sober Moburg

Perhaps another reason for the film’s mixed reviews is that the glamorous jet-set lifestyle it presents clashes with the preconceived notions of Hunter S. Thompson as a down-and-out renegade, the pioneer of “gonzo” journalism. But the fact is, as a sought-after young journalist who was already contributing to big title New York magazines of the day, Thompson certainly brushed elbows with people who had deep enough pockets to fund his more outrageous assignments and exploits. Just as readers prefer to imagine Charles Bukowski as the drunk and destitute barfly, rather than the wealthy man cultivating such an image eventually made him.

My point is, the blurring of fact and fiction is always hard to swallow. Whether in the form of exaggerated memoirs or on celluloid film, audiences have trouble negotiating the author’s mingling of fiction and reality, no matter how seamless or embellished. Just ask James Frey. But by adding a Hollywood sheen (thankfully not Charlie…) to Thompson’s story, The Rum Diary provides a narrative arc that helps us better understand how he found his voice as both a writer and a journalist, and emerged determined to use that voice and forum to take down “the bastards” who control and manipulate our society. So ignore the naysayers and just soak in all the boozy sunshine and gloom this film has to offer. It might even compel you to pick up one of Thompson’s anthologies, rather than to simply take acid and hang up Fear and Loathing posters in your dorm room.

Be on the lookout for upcoming Late Pass entries arguing the underrated merits of Steven Soderbergh’s action flick Haywire, starring MMA fighter Gina Carano, and David Wain’s latest comedy Wanderlust, starring Jennifer Anniston and Paul Rudd.