Posted by: greercn | December 7, 2011

The Rum Diary

This labour of love for Johnny Depp is a really good movie. You need to have a high level of tolerance for watching binge drinking and illegal drug taking and it helps if you know a little about Hunter S Thompson.

Yet even if you come to this story with no background knowledge, the backdrop of sunny Puerto Rico in 1960 and the sensitive handling of imbalance between rich and poor will still move you. The characters and story are interesting and draw you in.

I am not a fan of Depp’s, but he gets Thompson’s mannerisms and voice and words absolutely correct. It’s a brilliant performance.

Hunter S Thompson was one of the five most intelligent people I ever met. I brought him to McGill University to speak in 1976. Clearly, he had consumed buckets of hallucinogenic drugs and had a bottle of liquor before he went onstage to speak.

He spoke without notes for over an hour and I can remember every word, all these years later. His incisive mix of savage political commentary and truly eccentric views grabbed the attention of everyone in the packed auditorium.

He wrought havoc on the team looking after him, but I learned a great deal that night. I had the privilege of speaking with him afterwards and he was lucid and fascinating, despite prodigious substance abuse.

His published books rang from the utterly brilliant to the hugely self-indulgent.  He killed himself in 2005 and Depp paid for the funeral. So for Depp, this film is personal.

“The Rum Diary” was written in the 1960s, but not published until 1998.

Paul Kemp (Depp) is an American  journalist in Puerto Rico. The newspaper is beyond a picket line as he arrives. His colleagues are mostly alcoholic and lead an ex-pat lifestyle.

Kemp becomes involved in a plan to build a hotel. He observes the corruption just behind the tourist facade and he photographs poverty, away from the glittering beaches. He drinks a lot, takes drugs, falls in love and gets into trouble with the authorities, exploring local voodoo along the way.

The movie succeeds because it tells a simple story, without many special effects and features some fantastic performances and terrific writing. The sexual scenes are remarkably delicate and genuinely sexy.

Giovanni Ribisi puts in a glorious turn as Moburg, a journalist. Aaron Eckhart and Richard Jenkins are great. Amber Heard is utterly believable as Chenault, the woman Kemp becomes obsessed with.

It’s all directed with great subtlety by Bruce Robinson, who has also written a witty screenplay. It flags a little in the middle and is slightly too long at 120 minutes, but I can’t imagine a scene that could have been cut.

The music is really good and reflects the changing mood on the screen.

As so many of the themes are universal and relevant, this should be a massive hit. But I suspect that the sombre and puritanical times are in negative judgement of Thompson, now as during his lifetime.

Well done, Johnny Depp. I like you a lot better after seeing this. This is one of my top five films of 2011.

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