Low-key offbeat mood movies like The Rum Diary have always been tough sells, even if they’re relatively assured and “well made” as far as that goes. The odds are that half the critics are going to take a dump on them because they aren’t dramatic or wacko or plotty enough. But dry, rambling, mild-mannered half-comedies are okay in my book, and I was surprised to discover earlier this week that this long-delayed Bruce Robinson-Johnny Depp film is far from a burn.

Either you let it in or you don’t. It is what it is, and it ain’t half bad.

“No, wait…that’s not what we want!,” says the public. “We want madness, cojones or some kind of extremity. We want deep-river emotion or major nutso insanity or…whatever, something weird or new or jaw-dropping or pants-dropping.” Well, Rum Diary isn’t that. Which is why it’ll be gone from theatres fairly quickly.

If you’ve followed the tortured history of this film, shot in early ’09 and then found wanting by distributors and set out on a path of unloved loneliness, you would naturally expect it to play like some kind of calamity. That’s what I was mostly expecting. And when it turned out to be what it is, I felt mildly pleased. It’s an in-and-outer, mostly an inner, and reasonably adult and thoughtful and measured. It works according to its own modest design.

I for one am sick of the rules of doper or absurdist or extreme-misfortune-happening-to-idiots formulas, and I felt mildly amused and half-charmed by this dry, no-big-deal thing. I loved that it kept its laid-back cool and didn’t force a comedic agenda into the folds of its slight narrative. And the fact that the story, set in 1960 Puerto Rico, feels like it’s actually happening in 1960 and not a 2011 version of same.

Everyone knows the gist of the Hunter S. Thompson book by now. Depp’s Paul Kemp is Thompson as soft clay, uncertain of mission, a pre-60s guy in the sense that the ’60s began with the Kennedy assassination, pre-Hells Angels book, pre-Fear and Loathing, pre-Woody Creek, pre-almost everything.

Rum Diary is basically a Hunter S. Thompson origin saga — i.e., how the late gonzo writer came to find his soul and his voice at the beginning of his career.

Kemp arrives in San Juan to work for a failing daily newspaper, and becomes chummy with the paper’s boozy, slightly fungusy photographer (Michael Rispoli) and some kind of slimy, greasy newsroom oddball (Giovanni Ribisi) who hangs around and drinks. He meets Puerto Rico’s greedy capitalist cabal (led by Aaron Eckhart‘s “Sanderson’) and stupidly falls then falls in love with Chenault, Sanderson’s hottie-blondie girlfriend (Amber Heard).

What happens? Sanderson hires Kemp to write some kind of real-estate brochure that will presumably generate investor interest, but Kemp barely types a word before falling in love with Chenault, which naturally leads to eventual conflict with his employer. This and that happens (a lot of beautiful Puerto Rican scenery) including too much drinking, the watching of one of the Kennedy-Nixon debate on a TV belonging to a neighbor, and the taking of some kind of hallucinogen via eyedrops. But the basic offshoot is that Kemp realizes he despises slick opportunistic hustlers like Sanderson and will henceforth devote his life to giving them as little comfort and as much anguish as possible.

It goes without saying that it’s a pleasure to see Depp not wearing mascara or a pirate hat and being somewhat naturalistic, and at the same time inhabiting the same Hunter Thompson he played in Terry Gillliam‘s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (an unfulfilling film that was nowhere near as good as the book) only this time with hair.

I should have written this two or three or four days ago (I saw Rum Diary last Tuesday night) but it wouldn’t come.

30 thoughts on “Rummies

  1. I saw this yesterday, did not like it much.

    They nailed the setting, as you point out. Definitely feels like what 1960 San juan must have felt like.

    The problem is in the plot progression. The film becomes a series of jumbled vignettes, mostly involving drunkenness or hallucinogenic highs by Depp and his 2 allies.Cockfights, the visit with the voodoo lady, etc.

    The end of the film – the final scene – felt like a real copout, too. We are told, as Kemp sails off, that he gets the girl, becomes a worthy muckraker, etc. Don’t tell me – show me.

  2. Even with the mixed reviews (which I expected) this is still the one movie I want to see in theaters right now. Hopefully I get to it this week.

    I believe Depp was the one who wanted to push it back, because he didn’t want Pirates 4 to overshadow it

  3. Another HUGE copout: Amber Heard’s character is free spirited, vivacious, scantily clad most of the time – and we are told that she sunbathes in the nude – and then we never get to see her nekkid, but we get teased with one or two shots of her having sex, from the side, or frolicking in the ocean as seen through a telescope, never really seeing the goodies. No good boob shots, for sure.

  4. I saw it this weekend and was quite surprised by how much I liked it. I haven’t enjoyed a Johnny Depp movie this much since BLOW.

  5. Count me in the positive column. I like its setting, ambience, and developed characters.

    Still, the thing I couldn’t figure out was why Sanderson (Eckhart) was the bad guy and Kemp (Depp) was the good guy.

    Sanderson is friendly, trusting, loyal, puts up with Kemp’s alcoholic shortcomings in good humor and gives him a great opportunity. He’s genuinely hurt when things go bad at the end. He only wants to build a resort so that people can have a great vacation and he can justifiably make money from it.

    Kemp, meanwhile, is disloyal, unreliable, self-righteous, alcoholic and hangs out with friends he really should kick out of his life before they drag him down. He steals Sanderson’s boat, tries to steal his girlfriend, and plays a significant accidental role in putting someone in danger. While he eventually pretends to act out of moral authority, he really acts out of envy. He’s a fun fellow,

    It is nice to have characters well rounded enough to debate things like this, however. Good job all around!

  6. I’ll see it tonight or tomorrow, but is this gonna have that Lebowski/Fear and Loathing audience of EXCLUSIVELY white guys who smoked up before the show and do that STONER LAUGH through the whole thing? Just all beardos who smoke weed and laugh REALLY LOUD at all the drinking and drug jokes to let you know that they trip out and smoke weed! and are just a bunch of regular hipster stoner groover mini-Bukowskis. I bet there’s not one black man on this planet, or one WOMAN, who thinks this kind of humor is funny. Not one.

  7. @LexG:

    I saw it in a mostly empty theater with maybe 10 total in the audience.Never heard a single laugh – there are maybe two mild chuckles in the film – one of them is in the trailer when Kemp is asked how someone consumes 160+ bottles from the minibar, and Kemp replies “those aren’t complimentary?”

    Somebody sitting in front of me walked out a few minutes before the end, right about the time I started thinking to myself “if I walked out right now, I wouldn’t miss anything that could possibly redeem this pile.”

    This is a lousy movie. The positive but qualified comments in this thread are a tip off.

  8. Since there’s never gonna be a better place to ask, what about that EVIL trailer line where, speaking about Amber Heard, some wrinkly old society matron winkingly says, ‘Everybody’s been down on her.’

    A) How do they get a line like THAT in a trailer? Does the MPAA just not understand it? And, B), does that imply the old cooze had slept with Heardy? That’s kind of EVIL and SATANIC and triggers my inner “possess all women” rage, and if I were Depp’s character I’d pull a Travis Bickle Calvinist purge and try, Jigsaw style, to make Heard see the evil of her ways in having same-sex sex with an old crone.

    What, in the actual movie, is the real deal with that line? Does Heard sleep with OLD WOMEN? It reminds me of Basic Instinct when Stone comes down the stairs and drapes her arms around that OLD MENTOR of hers, and the implication is they’re having sex, and it’s the most evil image in all of movies, and you want Stone to be PUNISHED for it right then and there.

    Viva Catholicism fucking a man up for life.

  9. Lex nails it. The dopers were sitting behind me last night loving every minute of it. and JR, do you live in Seattle, because that was me walking out. Every line in this bore fest wasn’t just delivered, it was declaimed. And all concerned were so proud of themselves for smoothly polishing these turds of dialogue..

  10. The other mild chuckle from the film is in the trailer, too – Depp bouncing up and down on Rispoli’s lap in the car.

    Seriously, this film has lame jokes in it, a jumbled plot, no good nude shots of Heard, and a bogus aborted ending. Other than that…

  11. Long as I’m MAN OF A MILLION QUESTIONS today, why are all these AICN/HitFix type dudes like, “HEY, it’s a BRUCE ROBINSON MOVIE!” like that’s some instantly recognizable auteur with a patented style on par with fucking Kubrick or even Tim Burton. All these throwaway lines in their reviews like, “…as you’d expect from a movie directed by BRUCE ROBINSON!”

    WHO???? I googled him and he was indeed who I thought he was– the director of that noted laff riot, “Jennifer Eight.” Yeah, that Andy Garcia, what a cut-up. And some other movie I’d never heard of and don’t care about… and “Withnail and I,” which I have NO IDEA what it is, I just know that flouncy fop from Hudson Hawk is in it, probably being annoying…. Question is, who knew WITHNAIL AND I was some legendary formative-years mainstay on par with fucking STAR TREK for movie nerds? And even if it is, it seems like that’s the guy’s ONE acclaimed movie… Where is anyone getting this body of work like BRUCE ROBINSON is some decades-long badge of quality? He hasn’t made a movie in 20 years.

  12. Lex, the line in the trailer is the old woman referring to the yacht, not Amber Heards character. Double entendre yes, MPAA fodder not so much

  13. Anyone expecting Fear and Loathing 2 from Rum Diary has not read the book. Don’t know why the movie needed to cost $45 million, though. But maybe it’ll be profitable on home video and/or get an Oscar nom for set designs or something. I bet it’ll piss ‘em off when Harold and Kumar 3 makes at least double RD’s box office next weekend, though. Surprised they kept it in the original setting-though I could swear it was 1959 in the book-’cus the ads suggested it might be a more modernized update.

    “(an unfulfilling film that was nowhere near as good as the book)”

    Are you kidding me? F+L was probably one of the best fucking movies of the 90s. It’s just that Trainspotting stole its thunder by getting there first. But unlike TS, F+L isn’t some godawful afterschool special with incomprehensible accents. It’s a comedy with a sense of purpose. If there’s one movie which did not deserve its low RT score, it’s Fear and Loathing.

    JR: Again, have you read the book?

    clockwork: I thought Blow was a tad preachy and confused about where it wanted to go, but it had its moments.

  14. When you think about it, the real disappointment this weekend’s gotta be In Time. Though if RD had a smaller theater count, its take might’ve come off a little better.

  15. LexG…WITHINAIL & I is a cult classic up there with REPO MAN and SPINAL TAP. I’ve seen it about 10 times and I’m not one to get into movies like that. I remember watching a Charlie Rose where he interviewed Judd Apatow and Adam Sandler when FUNNY PEOPLE came out and Sandler was saying “Judd was always turning me on to all these great movies that I never knew about..what was that movie `Withnail and I?”

  16. Was it implied that Chenault was gang-raped in that club? If so, her behavior afterward was a little odd for someone who suffered that sort of trauma.

  17. Kakihara: What does it matter if someone has read the book or not, not just for this movie, but for any movie? No, I have not read the book.

    But I have seen the movie, and it is not a very good movie, no matter how good the book may be.

    @Soma: that was one of the most disturbing aspects of the movie, the obvious off screen gang rape of Chenault after the feckless attempt by Kemp to rescue her. And exactly how did she know where to find Kemp, anyway?

  18. I’d argue they didn’t sell the movie at all. Just Depp acting like a drunk ass. No attempts at conveying plot or theme.

  19. Lex – I actually can’t believe you didn’t notice that ‘Withnail and I’ has an incredibly loud and vocal cult following. I think that a lot of online film geeks get most of their obscure picks straight from the Criterion collection, which did the ‘Withnail’ DVD and followed it up with his follow-up, creating the impression that he’s an Alex Cox type auteur.

    The funny thing about the old lady bit is that they think it’s strong enough to be in the trailer. It’s really poorly done (unless it’s different in the movie) — a joke like that is supposed to work by her saying “We’ve all been down on her” and him being all “HUH?!?!” and then realizing she’s talking about the boat not the woman. But, from the trailer, it’s basically “I’m looking at the boat, not the girl at all” “Oh, yes, we’ve all been down on her.” “HUH?!?!?! Oh, right, the boat, like I just said.”

  20. JR: Well, sometimes it matters, if you’re assuming certain things about the film from the ads, without at least knowing what you’ll actually get, if you don’t do the reseach.

  21. “But I have seen the movie, and it is not a very good movie, no matter how good the book may be.”

    I read the book. Which is why, even if the trailer had been good, I wouldn’t have seen the movie. It’s terrible. It’s basic proof that young Hunter Thompson was write to pursue journalism rather than fiction writing.

  22. Withnail And I is indeed the DEFINITIVE drunken, laughing, cursing-out-your-friends, falling-onto-the-cold-pavement movie. When I first saw it, I felt like I was getting a contact high and the VHS had just been sitting in booze for weeks. Richard Grant, who apparently never had a drink in his life, perfectly embodies that louche don’t-give-a-fuck attitude whenever you embark on drunken benders, flouting your disrespect for everything not relating to booze. It’s a valentine to just saying FUCK EVERYTHING I AM SO HANDSOME WHILE DRUNK, and I’ve seen it many times with a smile on my face, a drink in my hand, and no intention of doing anything the next two days afterwards.

    RUM DIARY achieved that feeling in bits and starts, but I was mostly bored by anything not involving beaches or Amber Heard. Johnny Depp isn’t much of an actor when there’s nothing on the page, and it’s just not fair to assume Paul Kemp is the Hunter S. Thompson we know. He starts prattling on about justice or the tyranny of politics or something at random points (justice smells like ink?) and it’s like, oh, where did this Bullshit Crusader come from?

    This should have been a plucky ninety minute boozy travelogue, sans the half hour of henpecking do-gooderism bullshit and condescending speechifying. Why the fuck is it two full hours?

  23. Wondering upon Withnail and I without knowing anything about it YEARS ago was such a strange delight. I seriously didn’t know what to make of it at first. I just knew I loved it. Hilarious performances, and situations kept coming, and I was like, “What the HELL is this film?” One of those films you couldn’t turn off for anything till the end. Drugs, debauchery, madcap chases from horny friend’s Uncles, mishaps, and a poignant ending. Sigh. Why can’t more films be that good, and discovered like that?

  24. Hmmm – all the above comments are, sadly, justifying my current feeling that the best bits of this film are probably all contained within the trailer. On the other hand, I’m pleased it’s finally gotten a release, as after reading the book of interviews with Robinson ( “Smoking in Bed” ) it seemed unlikely anybody would give him the money to make another film.

  25. Did cigarettes have filters on them in 1960? If not, how does that keep getting overlooked in period movies? Also the camera focuses for a few seconds on a rusted out 1950s car that would not exist in that condition in 1960, especially in P.R. Amber Heard is too skinny. Why did they move the time period to 1960 (from the late ’50s) so that characters could try LSD and only do that one tongue thing? It’s like Hunter S Thompson himself used the movie as target practice and blasted out most of the interesting bits.

  26. One reason for 1960: so that the Kennedy / Nixon TV debate would provide Kemp/Depp (channeling HST) one more chance to riff on his extreme hatred of Nixon.

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