The Rum Diary
Hunter S. Thompson’s The Rum Diary is a novel about a young writer in search of his narrative voice. Which is to say that the narrative voice in which it’s written is not that of the man who carpet-bombed American journalism in 1971 with the convulsively funny Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Which is also to say that anyone going into the movie that’s been made of this book expecting a lurid drug wallow along the lines of Terry Gilliam’s messy 1998 film of that one is likely to feel let down, or simply bored.
It’s difficult to imagine The Rum Diary—film or book—existing without the facilitation of Johnny Depp, who befriended Thompson in the last decade of his life and has since become a tender of his memorial flame. Around 1997, while doing first-hand research to play the Thompson character in Fear and Loathing, Depp happened upon the original Rum Diary manuscript, which Thompson had written more than 30 years previously, sent out to a number of uninterested publishers, and then filed in a box. Depp was instrumental in finally getting the book published, the following year, and now he and his production company have overseen its transition to the screen. May his devotional labors on behalf of his late pal now cease.
The movie begins in 1960, with young journalist Paul Kemp (Depp), arriving in Puerto Rico to start work, as Thompson did, at a scruffy English-language newspaper called the San Juan Star. The opening scenes, which show Kemp awaking in a hotel room with a smear of lipstick on his face and a four-star hangover, are a shorthand attempt to tell us that this is a hard-partying wild man. But once he arrives at the Star offices, Kemp is immediately overshadowed by far more colorful characters. There’s Sala (Michael Rispoli), the staff photographer, a lumbering drunk who quickly becomes Kemp’s guide to local dissolution; and there’s another reporter named Moburg (Giovanni Ribisi), a babbling slob in a filthy raincoat who only shows up at work once a week, to collect his paycheck, and who is clearly unbalanced. These two characters are so aggressively eccentric—to the point of tedium in Moburg’s case—that Depp’s Kemp has little more to do in the film’s early innings than limply observe their shenanigans. (Moburg is a devotee of Hitler speeches, for no discernible reason, and also brews bootleg hootch in the ratty apartment he shares with Sala, and with Sala’s cock-fight rooster.)
By way of welcome, the paper’s editor-in-chief, Lotterman (Richard Jenkins), advises Kemp to be circumspect in what he writes about the local power structure—chiefly the group of real-estate wheeler-dealers fronted by a corporate PR weasel named Sanderson (Aaron Eckhart). These cartoon American troglodytes are dedicated to cluttering the Caribbean with garish resort hotels, and they have their eye on a nearby island that’s currently being used for artillery target practice by the U.S. Navy. Kemp is sucked into their orbit, and soon becomes romantically entangled with Sanderson’s girlfriend, an actressy blonde named Chenault (Amber Heard).
The movie’s writer-director, Bruce Robinson, best-known for his 1987 cult comedy Withnail & I, is adept at working up an atmosphere of tropical sleaze, and he handles a spooky psychedelic scene (Moburg has come into possession of a brain-addling substance developed by the government) with gratifying moderation. But the story starts out slow and remains underpowered, and there are parts of the film that just don’t play, among them a puzzlingly hostile encounter at a remote native eatery and a long club sequence in which the drunken Chenault is menaced by a group of sweaty dance-floor lugs. (She disappears from the story for a bit, and we assume that she was subsequently assaulted; but then she reappears and nothing further is made of this possibility.)
The reactive character of Kemp, with his jackets and ties and neatly parted hair, gives Depp little to work with; and his conversion at the end into a Thompsonesque scourge of corporate villainy (“I put the bastards of this world on notice that I do not have their best interests at heart!”) is awkwardly sudden. The movie collapses at the end, with a final scene of schlock-heroic overkill that Thompson himself would surely have yanked. You can almost hear his old-school roar: “Get me rewrite!” May he and the remainder of his work now rest in peace.
In Time is a sci-fi movie with an intriguing premise that’s undone by an almost complete lack of visual style, and by plot puzzlements that don’t pass muster even by sci-fi standards. The director, Andrew Niccol, previously wrote and directed such weird-science specials as Gattaca and S1m0ne, so you’d think he would know his way around this territory. He once did, certainly, but he appears to have forgotten.
The story is set in a world in which time has become a commodity worth more than money. Everyone has been engineered to live till the age of 25, at which point people must begin accruing time credits, indicated by neon-green digital readouts implanted in their arms, in order to go on living. When their arm clocks run out, they drop dead. The vast mass of proles live, literally, day-by-day, while the wealthy, ensconced in a luxurious district called New Greenwich (as opposed to, say, New Beverly Hills), have all the time in the world. Or most of it.
Justin Timberlake plays Will Salas, a young factory worker in the proletarian ghetto. In a bar one night, he meets a despondent rich kid named Henry Hamilton, who’s 105 years old and tired of living, but still has 100 years of time left on his clock. After Will saves him from a gang of time bandits called Minutemen, Henry gratefully transfers all of his stored time to Will via a simple arm grip and then drops dead.
This unusually large time transaction rings bells at the headquarters of the Timekeepers, government functionaries charged with keeping the time market in balance. As the now time-rich Will sets off for New Greenwich to accost the fat cats there and “make them pay,” a group of Timekeepers led by Raymond Leon (scary-eyed Cillian Murphy) is right on his tail.
Arriving in New Greenwich, Will enters a casino poker game and wins even more time from Philippe Weis (Vincent Kartheiser, of Mad Men), a mogul who has whole eons socked away in his corporate safe, the ill-gotten gains from a chain of time-lending banks that prey upon the time-poor. Will also encounters Weis’s comely daughter, Sylvia (Amanda Seyfried). When Leon and his Timekeepers arrive on the scene, Will and Sylvia soon find themselves on the run. Much chasing ensues, right up to the movie’s very silly conclusion.
The story is an attempted critique of “Darwinian capitalism,” as it’s called at one point. The fat cats’ motto is, “For a few to live, many must die.” And why is that? “Everyone can’t live,” says one character. “Where would we put them?" Okay, whatever—time is now a zero-sum enterprise, apparently. But how were arbitrary concepts like minutes, hours, months, and years rendered tangible? And by whom? None of this bears sustained thought.
There are other oddities. When one character is given a gift of 10 years’ worth of time, instead of being deliriously happy, he cashes in nine years of it in order to drink himself to death (in the space of what seems to be about a week). Most annoyingly, there are tantalizing references to Will’s father, now deceased, who caused much trouble for the Timekeepers many years before. What sort of trouble? To what effect? We never learn.
The movie has a dismal look—it seems to have been shot in a succession of bank lobbies. And Seyfried, who is usually cute in a fairly inarguable way, is fitted out here with a horrid red wig and ridiculously thick black eyeliner—she’s less New Greenwich than New Trenton, and the director’s insistence on this transformation is baffling. When Sylvia’s father inevitably crows that “there’s nothing I can’t buy,” you wonder why he hasn’t splashed out on a spa day for his daughter.
Kurt Loder is a writer living in New York. His third book, a collection of film reviews called The Good, the Bad and the Godawful, will be out on November 8th from St. Martin’s Press. Follow him on Twitter at kurt_loder.