Monday, November 21, 2011

Rum Diary (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway 

The Rum Diary

Hunter Thompson is a spirit that I have always felt since the early 80s. While growing up in Key West, I heard stories of the tall slender eccentric, moving spastically through space, quick with a verbal jab for any supercilious poser or smirking politician. More times than I can recall, I have heard of this madcap man, stalking about Key West and the rustic environs of the Sugarloaf Lounge, taking large, loose-limbed steps through a darkened salty interior, apparently holding court with a cigarette holder and an iconic visor.  Imaginary and fantastical, he seemed, so close but yet so far, worlds away from my wheelchair.
Now decades later, I set out to see "The Rum Diary" the new film based on an obscure novel by Thompson, which both stars and is produced by Johnny Depp. Depp has been in two previous films featuring Thompson and also became his close friend in later years.
Bumping along a slanted sidewalk on my way to The Tropic, my left leg shook in anticipation. After one film by Terry Gilliam that tried too hard (Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas) and a conventional documentary, perhaps I would now be able to glean some new insight into the impulse of Hunter Thompson, or at least be entertained.
Sadly, my search continues.
"The Rum Diary" despite the heartfelt panache of Johnny Depp, sheds little light on Thompson, either fictionally or biographically. Both the story and its actors have no gusto in their Gonzo.
Once again we have Depp in a Thompson role as Paul Kemp, a young drifting journalist who somehow finds himself wanting to work for the San Juan Star in Puerto Rico. How Kemp got to Puerto Rico I'm not sure, and I don't think it matters much. But sure enough, here he is, blotty-eyed and slobbery, under a tropical sun. Depp speaks in the same quickened voice that  was heard in Gilliam's film albeit more softly. Say what you will about Depp as  Hunter, but he is consistent. Depp has his friend's soft and speedy rumble down to a science.
But science is not enough.
Despite some clever touches of a Hunteresque Kemp intently peering at a volume of Coleridge on the beach, eyebrows rolling, Depp is too smooth and too much of a mannequin of Thompson. He is a mere shade. As Depp walks around improbably but impeccably dressed under a brilliant and glossy landscape of San Juan without any shadows, it's hard to find any Hunter in the light, be he Bohemian or beastly. The man is missing. This is just the surface of a Vanity Fair photo shoot. Paul Kemp trots about from one bland socialite to the next nightspot, drink in hand. Such repeated imbibing does not make for entertainment, surrounded by so much bland chatter.
 The story, which should have been full of Gonzo galore is the stuff of a Sunday snooze. I can only think that Hunter may well be hollering from beyond in some wild innerspace.
Actor Aaron Eckhart arrives on the scene as a petty self centered resort developer and Kemp moves into a flophouse with an alcoholic, the dissipated journalist Moberg (Giovanni Ribisi). Despite his formidable appearance this man is an annoying bore. No one is interesting or says anything very surprising. Granted, this story was written before Thompson found his voice, but there is hardly any energy or flavor to the narrative or acting. This is only bare mojito motion that goes on longer than it should---two solid hours--- despite the fire-breathing hijinx of someone who could be Hunter. Liquor that catches fire? Or a car that speeds over a bridge? That's not Gonzo by half.
Most of the jokes are hollow chuckles: Kemp  fretting over an out of control vehicle. Kemp sitting in his sidekick's lap, attempting to drive a car down some steep walkways and crashing. It all seems forced, not all that funny and oddly un-Hunter. Kemp could have been any well dressed inebriated tourist.
Veteran actor Richard Jenkins is one surprise however, as Lotterman, the boss of The Star. Jenkins has power and punch as the man who gives a knocking to Depp's catatonic Kemp.   
I really wanted to like this film, but it makes  a weak drink. For those of you who are curious about Hunter this is a tepid charade of what could have been. I recommend Gilliam's earlier film on Thompson  or better yet, "Where the Buffalo Roam" (1980), starring Bill Murray. These two quirky films, combine in a stronger shot, showing  the real spunk of this writer who wrote as life appeared to him: pouring paragraphs with painterly sounds that were unapologetically associative and full of pharmaceutical fun.

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