Sunday, April 1, 2012

Review: THE RUM DIARY: ugly Americana in paradise

Phil Kemp, a lost writer, travels to Puerto Rico in 1960 to find his voice through some solid hack work on a local paper. He soaks up local colour, is courted by big and dodgy money to soap up a crooked land deal, falls in love with the bad guy's girl and observes his world with dry accuracy. And then it ends.

Bruce Robinson, whose Withnail and I is justly celebrated for its comedy with conscience, has assembled promise on a plate for this film. Johnny Depp intriguingly plays the younger version of a character he played as an older man when he, Depp, was younger (the bastard hasn't aged an hour since 1998!) Michael Rispoli transcends his gangster stereotype effortlessly in the role of the Virgil-like Sala. Aaron Eckhart is perfectly cast as the bad guy in chief, ugly American as earthly Apollo. Giovanni Ribisi plays an eccentric whacko with none of the self-defeating directionlessness that Jeremy Davies has wasted his career pursuing. Robinson's cover version of Hunter S. Thompson's alien with a thesaurus style is note perfect. So, why is The Rum Diary so .... ordinary?

Well, to say it's too long is really to say that it continue with the smart comedy it hints at from the opening shot of a light plane dragging a sky banner welcoming Union Carbide to Puerto Rico. And even if the comedy spills from rather than tightens the film it is welcome when it does appear. And if the ugly American subplot is trowelled on it is at least performed with some elegance and study by Eckhart and co and if they are stereotypes they aren't too far here from their literary origins. You get the idea, no single element stands up and takes the helm when either of those threads would work well supported by the other.

Support really is the problem here. Withnail and I works so well because all of its uproarious comedy stems from the solid living trunk of its theme of knowing when to exit youth, stage left. It works so well that said theme isn't evident until the end when it becomes quietly impossible to ignore. Rum Diary's proposal that it takes a shock to find your conscience and so your voice is a fine one but the bricks of adversity hurled at Kemp's head are so chunky and heavy that there is really no danger that he will make the decision we all know he will make.

This is why The Rum Diary feels like it's going to be too long about halfway through. Take the proverbial half hour from this two hour piece and you'll have a tight feature film but you'll also have a flatter one that hits its marks and speaks its lines and then ends. You'd kill the style and voice of Robinson himself but it is the inability of that voice to bring the herd in that makes it so frustrating. Almost every thread is allowed to fray and waste.

That's it. That's what I think about this film: it's a waste. It fails pretty much everything it tries. Rather than put it next to Withnail on the shelf I think it would be more comfortable next to Men Who Stare at Goats or I Love You Phillip Morris. The worst I can say of this, though, is that it isn't even a disappointment. Anyone who has seen the film Robinson made just after Withnail, How to Get Ahead in Advertising, cannot be surprised at the misses of this one and perhaps be kinder on Bruce Robinson for bringing us a single genuine immortal classic. That's still more than 90% of people who make movies can claim.

Here I'll point out that the following is the sole mention of Terry Gilliam's Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.

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