Thursday, October 27, 2011

A stale helping of gonzo weirdness

By now, debauchery modeled on Hunter S. Thompson has begun to feel old hat.
Johnny Depp seems to have taken responsibility for honing Hunter S. Thompson's legacy. Depp, who played the gonzo journalist in Terry Gilliam's Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998), also helped draw attention to The Rum Diary, an autobiographical novel Thompson wrote in 1959, but which wasn't published until 1998.

Depp now stars in and serves as one of the producers of the big-screen adaptation of The Rum Diary, which tells the story of a dissolute young journalist (the Thompson surrogate) who learns to devote his life to fighting "the bastards," an all-purpose description for anyone who stands against truth, justice and the gonzo way.

Because Depp has played Thompson before, his portrayal of Paul Kemp seems like a muted preview of coming attractions for a character that would later blossom into a richer mode of bat-shit craziness. Still, the roots of big-time debauchery can be seen in Kemp, an apparently shiftless young man who lands a job on an English-language Puerto Rican newspaper called the San Juan Star.

True to Thompson's form, we meet Kemp in the midst of a ferocious hangover. We eventually learn that the aspiring journalist has prepared for his job interview at the Star by consuming large quantities of alcohol. The Star's editor (Richard Jenkins) hires Kemp to write horoscopes, and later complains about the way Kemp has abused his hotel privileges, downing something like 161 miniatures from the mini-bar in his room.

In the early going, director Bruce Robinson (Withnail and I) introduces the movie's eccentric cast of characters, which includes Sala (an excellent Michael Rispoli), the paper's photographer, and Moburg (Giovanni Ribisi), the paper's resident drunk, a surly fellow who refuses either to work or be fired and who sometimes listens to the recorded speeches of Adolf Hitler.

Much of this comes across as strained weirdness, which doesn't exactly serve Thompson or the movie well.

The screenplay - also by Robinson - throws Kemp into a plot involving commercial treachery. An American businessman (Aaron Eckhart) tries to arrange a land development deal that's bound to inflame the already simmering resentments of anti-U.S. locals.

Robinson puts Sanderson and Kemp into competition for a beautiful young woman (Amber Heard), who happens to be engaged to Sanderson. Heard's character - Chenault by name -- provides the movie with its seductive allure.

By now, Thompsonesque reprobation seems entirely too familiar to be more than mildly amusing. On top of that, Robinson keeps tossing off bits and pieces of movie: a crusade against greed, an early LSD trip, the seductive balm of an island away from the U.S. mainland and some broadly conceived comedy. A sight gag involving bizarre car ride in which Kemp winds up sitting on Sala's lap earned the biggest laughs at a preview screening.

So call Rum Diary an act of off-kilter devotion on Depp's part: Thompson devotees may enjoy it, but - to me - Rum Diary felt like a movie suffering from a hangover of its own. This may be an attempt to bring an early Thompson work to the screen, but instead of feeling fresh, Rum Diary has the dispiriting taste of residue.

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