This Sampling of 'Rum' is Intoxicating

The Rum Diary is an overheated, heartfelt tribute. It's celluloid strained through a homemade still and fermented until near toxicity

The Rum Diary

Director: Bruce Robinson
Cast: Johnny Depp, Aaron Eckhart, Michael Rispoli, Amber Heard, Richard Jenkins, Giovanni Ribisi, Amaury Nolasco
Rated: R
Studio: FilmDistrict
Year: 2011
US date: 2011-10-28 (General release)
UK date: 2011-11-04 (General release)

The last time Johnny Depp and the work of the late Dr. Hunter S. Thompson came crashing together, the result was the criminally overlooked adaptation of the latter's famous Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Handled to Terry Gilliam after Sid and Nancy's Alex Cox was unceremoniously 'let go,' the relatively faithful translation of the notorious '60s screed argued that source and star had found a perfect performance match. Now, after years wallowing in Development Hell , Depp has managed to get Thompson's neophyte novel, The Rum Diary, into theaters everywhere. A true labor of love, it also represents a comeback of sorts for Withnail and I icon Bruce Robinson. Indeed, the man behind the beloved cult comedy hasn't directed a film in nearly 20 years. Fortunately, the results reveal that time has been nothing but good for this project...and the one's producing it.

It's the tail end of the '50s and failing novelist Paul Kemp (Depp) comes to Puerto Rico looking for work. He winds up at The San Juan Star, a paper plagued by labor and population disputes and run by an editor (Richard Jenkins) who wants to maintain the sunny status quo, not push for any investigative invention. As Kepp gets to know the other writers, including new best friend Bob Salas (Michael Rispoli) and resident crackpot Moberg (Giovanni Ribisi), he falls under the insular island tutelage of flashy fat cat Sanderson (Aaron Eckhart). Soon, the rich property owner wants Kemp to collaborate on a major land development deal, though the actual details are suspect at best. At least our hero has Sanderson's sexy gal pal Chenault (Amber Heard) to keep him occupied. Instantly smitten, Kemp will find that nothing in the troubled Caribbean atoll is what it seems to be.

If you want to hear and see the kind of writing that makes actors sing, if you want to recognize what's missing from most movies today, then just sit back and let The Rum Diary's dialogue dance across your tired, suspect brain. It's a beautiful experience, like listening to a carefully crafted symphony of cynical comic commentary. Robinson, who has lived off his Withnail credence for some time now, announces to newcomers why he is indeed so praised. The conversations here crackle with as much light and energy as the sun drenched tropical backdrop and the high proof cocktails. It's an amazing directing job, a near flawless combination of character, casting, and craft. Indeed, aside from one minor detail (Ms. Heard looks like a high schooler here), Robinson can be praised for his ability to take a fascinating amount of dispirit ideas and forging them into a fine, fierce comedy.

Yet The Rum Diary is not completely perfect. It misses beats here and there, the direct result of Thompson's inexperience as a scribe. As only his second book - and left incomplete until many decades later - the main narrative is a tad confused. Kemp comes to Puerto Rico to right wrongs, yet never takes on the ones right in front of his office doors. Instead, he gets wrapped up in a shady property deal with people who would piss on him rather than have his input. In fact, the whole hotel business seems labored and added on, like an unnecessary accessory to an already fine design. We'd never have to know what makes Sanderson so sleazy - just his mere presence and the way he lives argues for how he exploits things. The deal is a dead end, just like the oddball eccentricity of Moberg or the reasons for Chenault's groupie girl conceits.

Another flaw comes from familiarity. Since its release, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas has become an unexpected underground hit, a masterwork among those looking outside the mainstream Hollywood box. It's also been a benchmark to the current meteoric rise of Depp and his international commercial popularity, arguing for his integrity as an actor and his bankability as a star. Channeling Thompson flawlessly, the voice and attitude remains staples of the movie's magic. Here, Depp dips into them now and again, believing that by doing so, he shows how a novice like Kemp could become as jaded and jaundiced as his creator. Every once in a while, our hero will hunker down and start forcing his fiery opinions through thoroughly clenched teeth, and we're back in Gilliam's goofy nightmare all over again.

Otherwise, The Rum Diary is an overheated, heartfelt tribute. It's celluloid strained through a homemade still and fermented until near toxicity. It banks on your willingness to watch great actors deliver delicious lines in a location that just screams hedonism, all while watching the faults along the fringe wither and decay. The ugly American element is in full flower, proving that our country's path among foreign 'friends' was never pleasant or easy and the romance rides a tiny wave of sexual allure. The sudden decision to celebrate integrity may seem to come too quickly and the resolution of same too

pat, but the trip from introduction to indictment is frequently fabulous.

Those hoping for a manic, over-the-top mindf*ck ala Fear should, instead, sip a cool fruit based drink and chill. While there is plenty to be afraid of and hate about this version of the Caribbean circa 1960, the general vibe in one of relaxed repulsion. Indeed, the steaming pile in paradise theme resonates throughout Robinson's approach, the dreadful underneath always a side street or sporting event (read: cockfighting) away. By positioning his interpretation this way, but using performers who understand how to be both charming and alarming, the filmmaker finds subtexts that even Thompson would find fascinating. For audiences expecting a rollicking, rib tickling time, The Rum Diary will probably disappoint. For others, however, the melody of the words and the ability of those offering them makes up for a couple of minor miscues. This particular potion of Rum is indeed intoxicating. You just have to get past a few impurities to truly enjoy it.


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In October of this year at the UK premiere at the BFI London Film Festival, Kronlund spoke with PopMatters about being driven by questions rather than inspiration. She also reflected on the subjective nature of documentary filmmaking, the necessary artistic compromises of filming in Afghanistan, and feeling a satisfaction with imperfections.

Why filmmaking as a means of expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?

Not really, no. I have always done documentary. I used to write scripts and TV series but I only make documentaries myself for radio and television. For this story, I figured out after a while that it deserved a bigger ambition and a bigger screen and that's why I don't very much believe in inspiration. To be honest, I made this film because I had to do something. I didn't have a big project where I thought: I want to make this. I went there and I found a little money and at the end the ambition and the inspiration came along the way. But there was not an urgent necessity to make this film. It fits with a lot of things that I'm interested in, like popular culture -- What does art stand for and why do we go to the cinema? What is the purpose? This is a question I'm interested in, but inspiration, not so much.

Has The Prince of Nothingwood provided you with the answers to those questions?

It has, and I hope it helps people to think about this question. It tells you that there is an urgent need to make images, to make films, even during war,and even if you don't have the money. And even if the films are not very good, they will find somebody who will like them. So something is going to happen, and I think that's very touching. I don't like Shaheen's films, I hardly watched them -- I paid somebody to watch them. But I'm very moved by all these people that do like his films, and it makes you think about the value of art and the purpose of why we make cinema. I used to study aesthetics in London, so it was one of the questions I had and while the film is lighter than this, that's what was in mind.

The film uses Shaheen as a doorway, beginning as a story about one man which becomes a story about Afghanistan, its people and culture.

Yeah, but it's not so much about Afghanistan and it's not my purpose is to say things about the country. There's one guy like him in Iran who makes cowboy movies in the Iranian desert and there's also a guy like that in Tunisia. I mean you have this person with an urgent need to film whatever they have under their hand and since it's war, then it tells you something about the war. But it's not so much interested in him.

There was a lot of editing, 148 hours that you haven't seen [laughs]. Making a documentary is really telling a story and I don't have any idea of objectivity -- it is my point of view on Shaheen. Some people say to me that they would like to show his films, that they really want to see his films, and I say: "You don't see how much I have edited. I show you the very nice parts of his films." People think he's a great filmmaker and that's the story I wanted to tell -- but I could have told another story.

To my mind, objectivity is a human construct, a falsity that does not exist.

Except mathematics maybe, and sometimes physics.

The purist opinion of documentary as objective is therein built on a faulty premise. From the subjective choices of the filmmakers that bleed into the film to the subjectivity of the subjects, it's not purely objective. Hence, it calls into question the traditional dividing line of the objectivity of documentary and the subjectivity of narrative fiction.

Totally! It's the editing, and why you chose this guy, how you film it and what you show, or what you don't show. It's not only subjectivity, it's storytelling. Not many people ask me about this, they take it for granted that it's the real Shaheen. But I'm not lying, I'm not saying things that aren't true, but I am telling a story, a fictional story out of what I filmed. I took scenes that happened one day and I put them with another story that happened three months later and that's why we had seven months of editing with three editors. So it was a lot of work.

One of the striking aspects of the film are the light and comedic moments offset by a darker and heavier sensibility, which include moments when, for example, Shaheen talks about arranged marriages.

We made 70rough cuts and there was one version we tested and you couldn't believe you were in Afghanistan. People would say: "Oh this is too funny. You don't see Afghanistan, it's just a bunch of crazy guys." I then said: "Let's put in a little more darkness." You then have to strike a balance and to me, if it's not perfect, I'm happy.

Shooting the film in a dangerous and volatile part of the world, was the approach that once you had enough footage you then looked to shaping the film in the edit?

It's not when you feel you have enough, it's finding a balance between security and artistic concerns. That's it. You have a plan and you have an agenda. There are things you want to do, but it has to be balanced with security concerns. The real story I was going to tell about Shaheen I found in the editing room and in the end, I only kept five days of the shoot. The whole film takes place in Bamyan (Province), nothing in Kabul, although I had weeks and weeks of footage there that I had to take away.

There's a moment when Shaheen asks if you are scared, which sees him verbalise our silent recognition of your boldness and courage to bring this story to the screen.

It's very difficult and it's not like you are walking in the street and there's a bomb. This is not what's difficult. The difficulty is to cope with your fear and to have rules and to follow or to not follow those rules. There are many foreign people that never go out at all in Kabul -- it is forbidden. You have British diplomats who do not even drive their car from the airport to the embassy -- they will take an helicopter that costs £2,000 each way. Then you have foreign people who walk in the street without a scarf -- these girls get kidnapped.

In between these you have Shaheen, who is telling me all the time that I'm too scared, because it's a man's value to be brave and he's a brave guy, there's no question about that. He was in an attack two weeks ago. There was a bomb in a Shia Mosque and he helped to carry out the bodies. So there's no kidding about the fact that he's a brave guy and he has to be because he's been fighting to make his films. But you are in the middle of this and I'm not a brave person at all and I don't think being brave is a very important question. It is, but I'm not brave, I'm very scared and so in the middle of all of this stress it's enough just to manage to not go crazy, or to not drink too much [laughs].

Salim Shaheen and Sonia Kronlund (courtesy of Pyramide Films)

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