I have 498 movies in my Netflix Instant queue. I tend to watch one thing for every five that I add, but now my library is close to being full and I have to make room. So, every Monday I’m going to pick a random movie out of my queue and review the shit out of it. But (like Jesus), I’m also thinking of you and your unwieldy queue and all the movies in it you want to watch but no longer have the time to now that you’ve become so awesome and popular. Let me know what has been gathering digital dust in your Netflix Instant library and I’ll watch that, too. One Monday for you and the next for me and so on. Let’s get to it.
What’s the movie? The Rum Diary (2011)
What’s it rated? Rated R for some damn inventive swearing, cock fighting and Amber Heard melting out your eyes.
Did people make it? Based on the novel by Hunter S. Thompson. Written and Directed by Bruce Robinson. Acted by Johnny Depp, Amber Heard, Michael Rispoli, Giovanni Ribisi, Aaron Eckhart and Richard Jenkins.
What’s it like in one sentence? If Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas was a superhero movie, The Rum Diary is the origin story.
Why did you watch it? Jason the Mason, WeAreLegion and Relaxing Dragon made me do it.
What’s it about in one paragraph? Paul Kemp (Depp), a thinly disguised stand-in for Hunter S. Thompson, gets a job at the San Juan Star, a newspaper in Puerto Rico. As he slips further and further into alcoholism and drug use, he’ll also find himself falling down the rabbit hole of city-wide corruption and going for ladies above his station. Will he join in with the good-old boys as they rape Puerto Rico for all it’s worth, or will he become Dr. Gonzo and piss all over the bastards.
Play or remove from my queue? I think you should absolutely play it, but with managed expectations. The film is nowhere near as bad as early reviews made it out to be, although if you’re comparing it to Fear and Loathing then you’ll be disappointed no matter what. For me, the big comparison was always going to be to Bruce Robinson’s earlier film Withnail and I, which is in my top 25 films of all time list. That film is the high water mark of comedy for me, so my expectations for The Rum Diary were high, although tempered by the months of bad press the movie has received. And sure, there’s stuff that doesn’t work, but I think there’s more stuff that does and doesn’t science dictate something about if you let it go and it comes back to you then the movie is good? That’s probably not accurate.
I think one mistake people made with the film is thinking that Johnny Depp wasn’t trying as hard in this or wasn’t enough like Thompson. The thing is: I think Depp is great and what he’s doing in this is a lot more subtle than I expected. He’s playing the same Thompson he played in Fear and Loathing, but earlier on the timeline, so he almost seems watered down. But he’s not watered down, he’s just not hardened by the years of drug abuse, the full bodied defiance of authority and the self-righteous anger of the disillusioned. He is also just in the process of finding his voice, so not every line is poison-barbed gold yet. This film is about the initial disappointment that creates the man we see in Fear and Loathing or read about in Generation of Swine or Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72. In The Rum Diary, he’s only just learning how to wield his anger in ways that can change people’s perspectives. That arc in the film is clear and easily followed and quite powerful, it’s mostly the romance that falls flat.
Don’t get me wrong, Amber Heard is smoldering in this and she and Johnny Depp have a palpable chemistry, but there’s no real reason for her character to be into his (other than the fact that he looks like Johnny Depp). I guess it’s supposed to be a love at first sight type thing (which is understandable. Again, Amber Heard is very, very hot in this), but there needed to be more there to develop the tension I think they were going for. Heard is dating Aaron Eckhart (in full blown In the Company of Men mode), a rich scumbag developer who tries to draw Kemp into his web of corruption. The thing is, Heard’s character is nice, she’s not really vampy or untrustworthy. She makes bad decisions, but a good character does. There’s no reason to believe that she would stick around with him anymore than you’d believe she would eagerly fall into Kemp’s hot mess of a life either. The post-script of the film ties a bow on the romance in such a way that’s incredibly tone deaf and ignorant of the things that make the movie worth watching.
Aside from Kemp’s arc, the other highlight of the film for me was the relationship between him and his co-workers played by Michael Rispoli and Giovanni Ribisi. I’ve never enjoyed Rispoli more and I’m hoping his type casting of Italian-American mafioso gentlemen is a thing of the past. He brings a warmth to the role that I haven’t ever seen from him. Ribisi steals the whole damn movie as Moberg, an alcoholic reporter that’s so drunk, he looks two or three drinks from death. All the time. Ribisi plays him with such a bizarre, cartoonish energy that I’m not sure any other actor could have pulled it off. Eckhart is fine, as well, but doesn’t have too many colors he gets to play with. It’s a strong ensemble that’s held together by a truly unshowy performance by Depp.
The Rum Diary is a simple movie that sort of just breezes right by, but underneath that breeze is a wonderful tribute to Thompson and the outlaw nature he managed to cultivate into a real voice, one that is more relevant today than ever before. He was an extremely flawed man, but he had a twisted and warped moral fiber that was always kicking around inside of him; never letting him keep him mouth shut even if that was the easiest path to take. In this film we get to see that moral fiber explode howling into the world and, for that, it is very much worth your time.
Do you have a favorite line? There are quite a few to choose from, but for me it comes down to Giovanni Ribisi telling Johnny Depp and Michael Rispoli about the witch doctor they’re going to see: “By day she drives a garbage truck, by night she becomes Papa Nebo: the hermaphroditic oracle of the dead.” It’s really all in the delivery.
Do you have an interesting fun-fact? Bruce Robinson was sober for six and a half years before sitting down to write the script for The Rum Diary and suffered horrendous writer’s block. So, he drank a bottle of alcohol a day until he finished the script and then quit again. I can’t tell if that’s dedication or enabling.
What does Netflix say I’d like if I like this?
Gonzo (a damn fine documentary about Dr. Thompson), Mad Men (everyone should like Mad Men…eventually), Dead Man (a masterpiece), Thursday (I unashamedly love this movie to death. It jump-started my man crush on Tom Jane) and Joe Gould’s Secret (another masterpiece. These are the best movies Netflix has ever recommended to me all at once).
What does Jared say I’d like if I like this? I think you would really enjoy reading The Great Shark Hunt, which compiles a lot of Thompson’s writing from the time period depicted in the film. It’s a fascinating compilation of his letters and newspaper articles and you can actually track Thompson discovering his voice.
What is Netflix’s best guess for Jared? 3.0
What is Jared’s best guess for Jared? 3.7
Can you link to the movie? Sure!
Any last thoughts? Watch the movie and make up your own mind, don’t let the anti-hype dissuade you. It’s worth your time.
Did you watch anything else this week? I watched an amazing French film called The Fairy which all of you should go see right now. I also finished watching The River and I’m pretty sure that I am sad it’s gone.
Any spoilerish thoughts about last week’s film, Visiting Hours? Why couldn’t the movie have just stayed as good as the first 15 minutes?
Next Week? I feel like we should watch a classic. Giant? One, Two, Three? A Farewell to Arms (Rock Hudson or Gary Cooper version)? The Naked City? Shout at the Devil? You gots a better idea?