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Not Enough Fear, Not Enough Loathing

The Rum Diary is watered-down Hunter Thompson; Tower Heist stands tall.

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Amber Heard and Johnny Depp in The Rum Diary.  

We Hunter S. Thompson freaks never stop hoping for a filmmaker to come along and re-create the buzz of reading him in that short-but-so-sweet era when his prose was as exhilarating as rock and roll and a damn sight funnier, before the drugs and booze made him not just batty but incapable of stringing together two coherent thoughts. And what a time this would be for that great Thompson movie, what with Occupy Wall Street gleefully settled in and driving our mayor to splutter more than ever like a high-school principal with Nixonian notions of civil liberties. But The Rum Diary has no mighty gonzo wind. Even with a push from its Thompson-worshipping star, Johnny Depp, it leaves our freak flag limp.

Writer-director Bruce Robinson was smart to throw out a lot of his source material, a listless autobiographical novel that Thompson began in 1959 at age 22 and didn’t publish until 1998, when he was too far gone to make it better. Robinson’s idea is conventional but good: to introduce Thompson (here called Paul Kemp and played by Depp) as a drunk and a failed writer with no particular political convictions and dramatize how he found his outrage—and, with it, his voice, his gonzo.

The setting is San Juan, Puerto Rico, where Kemp has just taken a job with a failing English-language newspaper. The Caribbean is changing fast: Cuba has fallen to Castro, and developers have their eyes on other rum-soaked islands with beachfront property. The gap between the wealthy and the working class is widening. Kemp wakes up on his first full day in town with a vicious hangover, stumbles past a tumultuous picket line into the office (run by Richard Jenkins in a garish toupee), and instantly attracts the attention of a wealthy slickster named Sanderson (Aaron Eckhart) who’s looking for a skilled writer to plant favorable stories about a proposed development. There’s a lot of money to be made from other peoples’ resources.

The puzzler is why on Earth Sanderson and his cronies would think Kemp is the man to carry their water. Depp is playing a hybrid of the young and old Thompson and looks bleary and apathetic—and he’s too busy ogling Sanderson’s fiancée (Amber Heard, who’s like an android fashioned to resemble Scarlett Johansson) even to make eye contact with anyone else. Around this central nonstory—meant to account for Kemp’s rebirth as a journalist committed to afflicting the powerful—Robinson stages various drug-and-alcohol-fueled misadventures with Michael Rispoli as a cruddy photographer and Giovanni Ribisi as the human embodiment of the D.T.’s, a blotchy, cadaverous creature dispensing hallucinogenics and squeaky non sequiturs.

Rollicking car chases, colorful carousing in tropical settings, psychedelics jags with outlandish special effects: It should be just what the Doctor of Gonzo ordered. But Robinson doesn’t have the gonzo touch. Even if his Withnail & I featured a spectacularly dissolute antihero, it was soaked through with cold rain and the melancholy specter of alcoholism and failure. To work, The Rum Diary would need to make the case for all the excesses that killed Thompson, and Robinson’s heart (or talent) isn’t in it. The movie builds to a cockfight, the winnings from which will allow Kemp to publish a final, excoriating issue of the newspaper—except that you can’t stage cockfights in movies nowadays, so the shots are brief and Animal Welfare was reportedly on hand to ensure that the birds never actually touched. No, I’m not calling for the return of cockfighting, but a cockfight without cockfighting is a ­better metaphor for the filmmaker’s impotence than any I could dream up.

The Occupy Wall Street people will get a bigger populist boost from Tower Heist, a shameless but exuberantly well-done caper comedy about employees of an apartment building for the super-wealthy who band together to rob the smug Madoffian billionaire (Alan Alda) who gobbled up, among other things, their pension fund. Ben Stiller, as a micromanager with a chip on his shoulder, and Eddie Murphy, as a calculating street thief, show off two of the best fastballs in comedy, and Téa Leoni’s best scene as an FBI agent—drunk, both sloppy and blunt—makes you wish she had more. The screenplay (credited to Ted Griffin and Jeff Nathanson) is packed with nifty gags, and director Brett Ratner stages a sequence involving a sports car dangling from the top of a skyscraper that makes us all Scottie Ferguson in Vertigo, our eyes making like yo-yos.

The Rum Diary
Directed by Bruce Robinson. R.

Tower Heist
Directed by Brett Ratner. PG-13.

E-mail: filmcritic@newyorkmag.com.


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