The Rum-Dum Diary

The problem with hero-worship is summed up by the words hero and worship. Either you worship the hero because he can do no wrong. Or, in the case of Hunter S. Thompson, you worship the hero because he can do no right, his misbehavior itself becoming the thing that gets praised. But either way, the man is a hero, the man is worshipped. What gets lost is the man himself and, more importantly, the work. Ultimately, the worship itself becomes the thing worshipped. Do we remember and revere Thompson for his books (Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, The Great Shark Hunt, Hell’s Angels, Generation of Swine, etc.) or for the writer’s personality, political stance, and hyperbolic style? Do I go too far? Maybe we remember a memorable scene here and there, but it’s the personality that endures. And how long does personality last after the man has left the building?

Johnny Depp, on David Letterman the other night, claimed that Thompson is among the best writers in the country. I don’t think so. I mean, I’m glad the man existed, glad that we had a trouble-maker like Thompson around for a while. He was a great railer. And yes, he created a lively sub-genre of journalism. But he’s not, I think, among the best writers in the country. Of course, Depp is promoting his new movie, The Rum Diary. And he was a friend of Thompson’s. And he does a dead-on impersonation of the man. So maybe we need to cut the man a little slack when it comes to making claims for his late friend’s greatness.

But no slack, I think, for this shambling shaggy-dog of a movie. Paul Kemp—young, alcoholic, and in need of a job—ends up working for a hanging-by-a-thread English language newspaper in Puerto Rico. He’s quickly befriended by the biggest misfits on the staff. Beyond that, and a few epic drinking bouts and the obligatory drug-induced altering of consciousness, not much happens in this movie. Our man in San Juan tries unsuccessfully to get his serious journalism into print. He’s hired in a half-hearted way to write a promotional brochure for a new resort that will despoil some of the local flora and fauna. But these are side-issues. It’s hard to get worked up over the resort scheme when it’s clear the whole country is being paved over and populated with hotels. What’s one more? Why is this particular project worse than all the others? We’re never told.

And anyway, the movie’s not really about Kemp’s struggle over whether to work for The Man. In fact, his biggest struggle seems to be over whether and where he’ll get his next drink. Other issues come up—the plight of the poor, the mercilessness of the rich, the dishonesty of Nixon, etc.—but they’re only mentioned in passing, as indicators that there’s more to Kemp than meets the eye. But no, really, there isn’t. He’s little more than a man in search of a drink, and that makes for a powerfully boring movie. As in the film version of Fear in Loathing in Las Vegas, Depp doesn’t act so much as do a feature-length impression of Hunter S. Thompson. And it wears thin.

In fact, the secondary characters are a good deal more engaging and over-the-top than Depp’s Thompson surrogate. Michael Rispoli, who’s known mostly for his work in television, turns in the most convincing performance, as Sala, the paper’s photographer, a man whose body is too rum-soaked ever to do exactly what his mind instructs it to do. Giovanni Ribisi plays a character who’s almost completely lost in an alcoholic haze. He revels in the role so much that you can almost smell the sour stench coming off his clothes. We’re meant, I think, to see the three characters as three stages in the development of the Thompson persona. The Rum Diary is an origin story, you see—how the man became the myth.

What little plot there is in The Rum Diary is entirely predictable. What will happen when Paul Kemp falls in love with the rich man’s girlfriend? Will he promote the rich man’s paradise after all? Will he ever convince his editor to publish his serious journalism? Don’t hold your breath in waiting for answers to any of these questions. The actors and moviemakers seem to lose interest their own half-hearted attempts at conflict.

I’m wondering how long it’s been since Depp has done any real acting? Surely not in the Pirates franchise or in Alice in Wonderland. In fact, I can’t remember being carried away by one of his performances since Edward Scissorhands, Dead Man, and Benny and Joon. (The Sleeper adds Don Juan DeMarco and What’s Eating Gilbert Grape.) He’s always interesting to watch, but successful actors in middle-age often stop being actors and become icons or preeners. Maybe with Depp, a bit of both?

This week, in addition to The Rum Diary, the biography of the late Steve Jobs also makes its debut. Just this morning I listened to Kurt Anderson interview its author, Walter Isaacson, on Studio 360. Toward the end of Jobs’ life, he turned to Isaacson and said something like “I’m not going to like parts of this book, am I.” Isaacson agreed that he wouldn’t. And that’s the way Jobs wanted it—a book that told the complicated truth about a complicated man. When will we get a story that tells the complicated truth about Hunter S. Thompson? Because The Rum Diary ain’t it.

P.S. The Sleeper enjoyed a long, refreshing snooze. Thank you, Hollywood!

Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides: Just Say No to Sequels

On Stranger Tides OnesheetWhen I was about to write my dissertation, I was told to make sure my title had a colon. Otherwise, it wouldn’t be taken seriously. While watching Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, I realized the practice has hit movie sequels. Is it an effort to make us take the sequel more seriously?

The question of sequels is interesting, especially as we enter a period of movie-making that will be dominated by sequels and remakes. That’s right: Hollywood’s all out of fresh ideas. The conventional wisdom is that almost no sequel is as good as, or better than, the original. Godfather II is at the top of the list of exceptions. In fact, it’s the only movie on the list.

Why are sequels such pale imitations of the originals? I wondered about this as I watched Pirates, which has all the elements of the original: the charming and roguish Johnny Depp, dastardly pirate villains, high-seas hi-jinks, a dash of the supernatural, a beautiful woman, etc. And Geoffrey Rush nicely reprises his hardy-har-har role of Barbossa. Ian McShane makes an excellent Blackbeard, so excellent he takes the movie away from Depp. And Penélope Cruz brings real dimension to her role as Captain Jack Sparrow’s rival and would-be paramour.

So why didn’t the movie carry me away? I didn’t feel drawn into it, captivated by it, awash in it. Instead, I saw it as more of an artifact than as an experience.

And I think I know why.

It has to do with what’s come to be known as the “decline effect,” which I heard about on NPR’s “On the Media.” The idea is that efforts to duplicate the findings of an experiment may confirm the results, but often to a lesser and lesser degree. Subjects were shown a video in which a man robs a bank, his face clearly visible. Later, half the subjects were asked to write down a description of the robber; the other half were not. Then all the subjects were asked to pick the robber out of a lineup. Oddly, those who wrote down the description—the ones you’d expect to have a sharper memory of the robber’s features—were 30% less successful in identifying the robber than the other group. Stunning, right? But even more stunning was the finding that efforts to duplicate the study showed, yes, the same result, but to a smaller and smaller degree, as if the validity of the experiment were slowly fading away.

Is it possible that Pirates has the same elements as the original, but the “decline effect” is at play, causing each sequel to be less and less effective, no matter how faithfully the original has been reproduced? That’s certainly the case with the Harry Potter and Twilight sequels.

Maybe it’s just that all those elements were fresh the first time. And now, as each sequel drags out the same bag of tricks, they’re just not as effective. Remember that wild aerial fight in the ship’s rigging from the first Pirates movie? A similar attempt is made in this one, this time in the jungle, but it’s a lame imitation of the original. And there’s the usual swash-buckling over rickety timbers. Nothing new here. On the other hand, what about the scene in the second movie where Captain Jack escapes by running inside a paddle-wheel like a hamster as the thing crashes and careens through the jungle? That was new, wasn’t it? But it also seemed more like a stunt dreamed up by the Cirque du Soleil team than like something that arose out of the story.

The decline effect suggests that the sequel can never be as interesting or effective as the original. So why try? The corporate (or corp-pirate) answer, of course, is that no matter how bad the sequel, it will make money. But the profit shrinks a little bit with each sequel. And so does your soul.

Hollywood, are you listening? Just say no to sequels.

P.S. The theater had a D-box seat set up in the lobby, so I tried it out. The D-box is a motion-controlled theater seat that shudders, dips, swoops, and rolls in time with the movie’s effects. It was set in front of a screen that showed the Pirates trailer. I’m sorry. To me it felt as though someone were kicking the back of my seat the whole time.