Posted by: gdevi | July 11, 2012

Movie review: The Rum Diary (2011)

“If you keep on drinking rum, the world will soon be quit of a very dirty scoundrel.”

Robert Louis Stevenson, Treasure Island

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“This is a good place, ” he said.

“There’s a lot of liquor,” I agreed.

Ernest Hemingway, The Sun Also Rises

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If you are thinking of becoming an alcoholic, then I highly encourage you to sit down and watch Bruce Robinson’s The Rum Diary adapted from a Hunter S. Thompson novel of the same name.  It is quite an engaging movie in a Johnny Depp kind of way.   In the regular commercials for alcohol, you see thin, svelte young boys and girls, or chic and sophisticated women and men sipping their whiskeys, brandys, rums etc very daintily while smiling beautifully at each other with white teeth, red lips, and nicely pressed suits and sexy dresses. At other times it is like the creepy ad for “Disaronno on the rocks.” Remember that? The sophisticated woman smiles sexily at the bartender and says sexily “disaronno on the rocks”  who confirms equally sexily “disaronno on the rocks.” You would think they were exchanging phone numbers or hotel keys, instead of buying and selling alcohol.  The commercials don’t show you the less sexy moments of mental and physical dissipation under the influence of alcohol, the slurred speech, the meaningless chatter, the dead-end aggression, the unstable gait, the vomit, the general deterioration etc. The Rum Diary, however, opens with a close-up of  a blood-shot human eye, straining to open itself. it is Paul Kemp, Depp’s character, waking up in his jockey shorts in a hotel room in San Juan, Puerto Rico’s capital city.  Kemp is a completely dissipated alcoholic, a reporter/ journalist soon to join San Juan Star, the city’s washed-out newspaper headed by the bilious editor-in-chief Lotterman, played just perfectly by Richard Jenkins, one of my favorite, favorite, favorite actors, bar none. This opening scene is classic Hunter S. Thompson. Kemp tumbles out of bed, walks over to the window, and pulls it open to see a helicopter streaming an island welcome to tourists: “Welcome to Puerto Rico Union Carbide,”” while Dean Martin sings “Volare” in the background.  Tourists like happy songs. Depp’s expression is one of sheer terror; though a lush, the man knows a spook when he sees one. It is a great screenplay; it is full of oneliners straight from Thompson’s novel: “He got raped to death in a cubicle,” Jesus is a bar of soap,” and the one that takes the cake, the exchange between Lotterman and Kemp. Lotterman asks Kemp, “Say, you’re not artistic, are you Kemp?” Kemp reacts with a shudder as if someone asked him if he was a pedophile: “Oh, no.” Lotterman says, “You might wanna rethink those menthol cigarettes.”

Along with Depp, Jenkins and Michael Rispoli as an equally drunk staff photographer Sala, and the wonderful Giovanni Ribisi as Moberg, a disgruntled former reporter who can never be fired and who has very little blood in his alcohol stream–you can light his breath with a cigarette lighter– “Rum” is another major character in this movie. Rum is the quintessential western European colonial and imperialist product; the sugarcane plantations in the Caribbean were not just for sugar as condiment, but also to ferment the stuff and make rum, which the masters gave to their soldiers to maintain their military, right from our Revolutionary war times.  This movie makes this metonymic link between Rum and economic slavery of old world communities like Puerto Rico explicit.  All these characters are in Puerto Rico because, even though Puerto Rico is part of the US, “real” mainland Americans consider it a “third world” place, sort of like Mexico, perhaps, or the Virgin Islands or Aruba, a colony they could visit to party, hide or have a good time.  Remember “Rum and Coca Cola”? As Lotterman explains to Kemp, visit the “bowling alleys”; that is where the news is; the plumbers from Illinois win trophies galore at the bowling alleys and casinos.  There is your news feature; go write. Rum is the social lubricant and currency for these modern colonial economic transactions. So there is plenty of rum in this movie. Rum in seedy hotel rooms, rum in chipped cups, rum in crystal decanters, rum at chandeliered receptions, rum in “native” shacks,  rum in private beeches, rum drunk straight from the distiller, and so on.  Since this is the “rum diary,” and people confess to awful things in their diaries, this film shows rum-drinking in all its graphic ugliness. In fact, much of this movie showcases ugliness and squalor; when it does show the  beautiful beaches and the opulence of crooked real estate developers like Hal Sanderson (Aaron Eckhart) we see the land and the sea as the contested entities; the US military is doing its air exercises there most of the time. It sort of spoils the view.

Hunter S. Thompson was no Walter Kronkite or Tim Russert, and this movie keeps this in clear view at all times, so we don’t expect to see the journalist as the crusader for the little guy.  Depp plays Kemp with the right amount of farce, satire, heart and ire, so that the flamboyance of his over-the-top personality–one minute quoting Oscar Wilde,  the next minute cheering at a cock fight– protects it against any charges of fraud or bad faith. Kemp’s goal is to be a living threat to “the bastards of the world” and not so much act as a mouth piece for the vox populi.  The exposition rambles a bit and we see a lot of rum drinking before we get to the crux of the plot.  Sanderson, the real estate developer gets Kemp and Sala out of prison by posting their bail, when they are thrown there for drunk and disorderly conduct and for setting fire to a local policeman’s face by lighting the rum breath. (Yes; it is the sort of thing Voltaire would invent, isn’t it?)   In return, to show his gratitude, Sanderson wants Kemp to use his writing skills to sell the idea of building a hotel in a pristine island leased by the US government; his partners in crime are a military general, several bankers, and a crooked Puerto Rican insider, a colleague at the newspaper. Kemp is in a bind and can’t refuse–he got out of prison with Sanderson’s help–who knew he would turn out to be a crook, right?–so like a person with their back against the wall would do, Kemp goes along with the plan. The matter gets complicated since he is also in love with Handerson’s girlfriend, Chenault (Amber Heard), an ornamental girl from Connecticut. Meanwhile, Lotterman threatens to shut down the newspaper.  More rum drinking later, lots more rum drinking, cockfights, witch doctors, an epiphany involving a hallucinogen that the FBI gave to the communists,  and the carnival, the twisted plot resolves itself as these things naturally tend to do, since it was so artificially engineered, to begin with.

I liked this movie; it is lighthearted, the jokes are not stale, and everyone loves Johnny Depp.  The ideological layer of the movie–the island, the tourism, the consumerism, the haves and the have-nots–is subtle, and it is quite clever how the director puts this ideological conflict to the service of Kemp discovering and developing his voice as a writer, rather than a documentary panning of a revolutionary social change. But then again, societies do not change unless people change.  A writer discovering his voice and purpose to be a “living threat to all the bastards of the world” is a good place to start.

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Responses

  1. Need to check this one out the next night I have the house to myself =) Good review!

    • Please do; it is an entertaining, good, commercial movie. GD.


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