I heard about the movie driving to work one day with my mother. One of the street beggars on the Jinnah Avenue underpass was selling newspapers, and as the familiar guilt crept into our hearts, we rolled down the car window and bought a copy, whispering a prayer for the one-and-a-half-legged man as he hobbled away on his crutches. It was in that newspaper that I read that Johnny Depp and his life partner were separating, and in the nitty gritty, there was some mention of a new movie.
Avid Johnny Depp fan that I am, I couldn’t wait to get home and Google my heart out. The Rum Diary. Download. Play.
I suppose it must be taken into account that I am biased in favor of any movie starring Depp. My favorite actor, and the multi-talented chameleon of cinema, he never fails to impress. Whether it’s as Edward Scissorhands, Willy Wonka, or the psychotic novelist in The Secret Window, Depp always commits to his roles wholeheartedly. And I haven’t even mentioned his stellar performance in Pirates of the Caribbean yet!
Here’s a little background: This movie is based on a book of the same name written by Hunter S. Thompson that takes the late 1950’s as its setting. The 200 page novella “encompasses a tangled love story of jealousy, treachery and violent alcoholic lust” amongst American columnists working at a Puerto Rican newspaper. Google the Great tells us that “The prominent characters are typical of Thompson’s work: violent, maniacal and alcoholic, stumbling through life. It is written in a highly paced and rather exciting style, also typical of his work.”
Now to the movie: Depp plays the character Paul Kemp, an author without a publisher, who decides to try actually “writing for money” and comes to Puerto Rico to work for an ailing newspaper. His boss is a bit neurotic, wears a toupee, and has sold his soul to Da Man. Kemp meets the girl of his dreams while paddle-boating, stumbles after her like the drunken fool he is, briefly has her and loses her, loses a well-paying-yet-morally-evil job opportunity, and makes some fun Hitler-loving, cockfighting friends along the way. Oh, and he decides to take down the mega-millionaire capitalist junta that’s trying to turn the beautiful Puerto Rico into an island hotel extravaganza. He chooses to describe them as:
Beasts of obesity. Asses that wouldn’t feel an arrow. The great whites. Probably the most dangerous creatures on earth.
We are introduced to Kemp’s alcoholic lust early on in the story.
He’s a hopeless alcoholic, but this is addressed in a very natural, subtle way. Few direct references are made to it, but you see him chugging down a swig or two in almost every shot. The whole movie is bathed in a sort of Fitzgerlad-esque light, a vintage Instgram filter for the mind, and the stunning Puerto Rican landscapes scenes only add to the visual wows. The alcoholism is no exception. In the same way, it is made eerily beautiful. Kemp’s uncontrollable need is only fuel to his genius. Those little bottles of rum become an artistic accessory.
He wants to be a real journalist, expose the Powers That Be that are ravaging little Puerto Rico for all it’s worth, but is instead sidelined to writing horoscopes to fill newspaper pages.
“I want to make a promise to you, the reader. And I don’t know if I can fulfill it tomorrow, or even the day after that. But I put the bastards of this world on notice that I do not have their best interests at heart. I will try and speak for my reader. That is my promise. And it will be a voice made of ink and rage.”
Kemp and his love interest, Chenault.
Lotterman, editor of the newspaper, Kemp’s boss. In a funny scene, a disgruntled worker rips off his hair piece.
The Hitler-loving Moburg
One of the more interesting characters is Moburg, a co-worker who never really shows up to work, and Kemp’s absentee roommate. There are several references to his continuous state of intoxication throughout the movie. With so much alcohol in his system that it has begun to erode his mind, Moburg drunkenly stumbles through several scenes in the movie, his words sometimes slurred and sometimes prophetic. He supplies Kemp and friend Sala with a strange drug, which apparently the US ships to the Communists, to make sure they can never think straight. Kemp and Sala cannot resist taking it, and when they do, start to hallucinate and panic.
Moburg: Maybe I can interest you gentlemen in something else.
Paul Kemp: Like what? Death?
Moburg: Like the most powerful drug in the history of narcotics. I’m not at liberty to discuss or disclose; all I can tell you is: this stuff is so powerful, they give it to communists.
Paul Kemp: Who does?
Moburg: The FBI.
Sala: Why would the FBI get communists high?
Moburg: That I can’t help you with.
He also steals alcohol filters from factories to make the purest and deadliest alcohol imaginable, and friendly as ever, is willing to share. In one scene, we find him drunk, dressed in his Hitler uniform and listening to the Fuhrer’s speech on the record player.
If the Bible´s God´s book, why didn´t he give it to everyone? – Moburg
Sala, friend and advisor to Kemp, here shown in the dingy apartment they share with Moburg
This country was built on genocide and slavery. We killed all the black guys over here and then we shipped in new black guys of our own. And then we brought in Jesus like a bar of soap. – Moburg
Now most of the reviews I’ve read of this movie describe it as lackluster and unimaginative, stating that it has “no real action” and that the plot is a wishy-washy, scattered affair. Depp’s acting is simultaneously applauded and criticized, with some claiming that it’s just another example of his narcissism. Comparisons are made to Thompson’s book, and conclusions are drawn that it either wasn’t at par with the book, or that the book sucked, so the movie sucked too. There is also some controversy regarded a statement that Depp made, saying that the US public did not like watching intelligent movies.
What did I think about all this? I loved the snappy editing, the atmospheric or original imagery; like the moment of a rum bottle bowling strike. I admire the classic, at times profound, lines, assumably penned by Hunter himself. No wonder Johnny Depp pounced on the 50’s script, an evolving prelude to 60’s hallucinogenic Fear and Loathing. A uniquely lighthearted slant on trouble in breathtakingly beautiful, darkly alcoholic, cockfighting Puerto Rico.
I’ll end with one of the movie’s most profound lines:
“Human beings are the only creatures on Earth that claim a God, and the only living things that behave like they haven’t got one.”