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Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington

Wilmington on DVDs. The Rest: The Rum Diary, Harold & Kumar Christmas

The Rum Diary (Three Stars)
U.S.: Bruce Robinson, 2011 (Sony)

The movie The Rum Diary, which I liked, is based — loosely, but that’s all right — on the novel that Hunter S. Thompson wrote when he was 22, a young guy, before “Hell’s Angels,” before “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,” before “The Great Shark Hunt.” Back then, he was just another writer-shmo, kicking around Puerto Rico, trying to get a reporter’s job on the San Juan Star, swigging a lot of hootch, chasing orgasms, raising a lot of hell, and laying down at least some of the pieces of his eventual legend as American journalism’s Doctor of Gonzo — a madman/genius/fireball of super-literary indecent exposure fueled by booze, cons and those bad (or good) intentions with which the road to hell, or maybe heaven, is maybe paved.

This movie was written and directed by Bruce Robinson — the sometimes inspired British actor/writer/filmmaker who also wrote and directed the semi-autobiographical 1987 boozy-Brits-on-the-loose masterpiece Withnail and I, and then floundered or was pistol-whipped through two other dubious movies and has been basically silent for the last nineteen years (including the two years that The Rum Diary has been on the shelf with alleged problems). And, as I was saying, it’s an hommage (classy word, huh?) to the Good (or Bad) Doctor a.k.a. Dr. Hunter S. Thompson a.k.a. Raoul Duke from his number one Hollywood admirer, star-producer Johnny Depp.

More than admirer. More than Hollywood. More than star. More than Depp. Johnny is the Thompson acolyte/buddy who persuaded Thompson to publish the long-unpublished manuscript of “The Rum Diary,“ and godfathered this movie of it, and plays the Thompson-derived character in it. Earlier, Depp played the movie role of Thompson with uncanny cool dedication, kick-ass fervor, lotsa chutzpah and just the right deadpan monotone voice and inner nervy throb in Terry Gilliam’s under-appreciated semi-classic 1998 movie of Thompson’s 1971 gonzo masterpiece “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.” (That movie is on Criterion, if you want a wicked cinematic treat. If you want a literary treat, and don’t already have that great book, with those wicked Ralph Steadman illustrations, your library is deficient. It‘s the Great American Un-novel.)

Here Depp plays, and none could do it better, Paul Kemp, Thompson’s alter-ego, a reporter/hell-raiser set loose in Puerto Rico in the early ‘60s. And this sort-of cinematic roman a clef, changed by writer-director Bruce Robinson — considerably, but that’s all right — is a good nasty show pulsing and snapping and exploding with the witty chaos, counter-culture venom and inspired invective that were the Good Doctor’s mock-shock-and-awe stock in trade. Second-hand Gonzo, it’s true, but even diluted Thompson packs a wallop, since the raw unfiltered original blows the back of your head off.

The plot of The Rum Diary (sketchily, but that’s all right) is a sort of “Education Sentimentale”/“Gaily, Gaily,” with rum and tequila. Paul goes to San Juan to work on the Star, winning a reporter’s job on a paper full of drunks because he was the only applicant. (In real life, Thompson didn’t get the job.) Paul then gets tossed out of a local hotel the paper has rented for him, for trying to break into the mini-bar and other crazed antics, and is forced to room in the squalid digs of The Star’s irreverent photographer Sala, played (funnily and open-heartedly) by Michael Rispoli, with Sala’s bizarre roommate Moburg, played (madly) by Giovanni Ribisi, as a lunatic writer who likes to dress up as a fascist and listen to Hitler’s speeches.

Soon, Paul is leading a life of sunlight and sin (shamelessly, but that’s all right). Soon, he falls into the clutches of the corrupt PR genius Sanderson, played (dead on) by Aaron Eckhart. Sanderson is a criminally handsome huckster/con artist who mediates and facilitates for the kind of well-dressed, greed-crazed money-glommers Republicans like to call, reverently, “job creators”: big time hustlers who are master-minding the kind of hotel complex that might have been designed by Albert Speer, if he’d been hired by Conrad Hilton, instead of Hitler. Sanderson’s main squeeze is the adorable Chenault, played (blondely and splendiferously) by Amber Heard, and sometimes you’re thankful for movie clichés. If Johnny Depp‘s Paul couldn’t get a romance going here, they’re paying him too much. We follow all these people (and more) around for a couple of hours, and, I don’t know, they amused and entertained me. Maybe you‘d rather look at Smurfs, and be my guest.

A warning. This movie will not teach you to be a better person. Or a richer person. Or a more famous person. Or a job creator. Or even a person or player capable of settling down with a blonde doll like Chenault, the knockout a clef played so va-va-va-voomishly by Heard, and adored and pursued in desultory but fairly determined fashion by Depp as Paul. Watching The Rum Diary, you might get a few fashion tips, especially if you‘re a blonde bombshell. But basically, this movie will teach you how to be a drunk and a sloppy housekeeper and a venturesome oddball ducking jobs and driving red Chevy Corvettes with your weirdo chums from party to party in San Juan, until suddenly you decide to be the celebrator of the great American orgy, and the scourge of the corrupt straight ruling class (especially Richard Nixon, who, Thompson once said, never let him down).

Anyway, you try. Maybe you flub your first shot. So what. There will be others, as the movie’s coda reminds us. And Paul, on some level, is Gonzo royalty, after all. The throne awaits. We’ll forget the suicide. After all, Hemingway did it, too.


The Rum Diary will also teach you, if you watch Richard Jenkins very closely — he plays (with cynical ferocity) Paul’s corrupt editor-boss Lotterman — how not to wear a toupee. (This is something you probably need to know, if you ever go to San Juan.) By the way, Jenkins is so good, I’d like them to have doubled his screen time. DVD Deleted Scenes curators take note.

The movie is good because it has funny lines and good actors and an edgy, smart viewpoint, and very, very good visuals — thanks to production designer Chris Seagers (who knows how to make a mess ) and cinematographer Darius Wolski (who knows how to shoot one) and ace editor Carol Littleton, who knows how to cut it all together. Despite Robinson‘s alterations, the movie has a sense of who Thompson was, and where his talent or genius lay. He was a master of the spew, a genius of the fifty megaton, in-your-face, totally unbuttoned, super-snakebite, blast-the-assholes, mess-with-the-best-and-die-like-the-rest, deadly-controlled literary tantrum. No one did it better. I just hope he’s in a place where they have no deadlines. And lots of rum.

Right beside my bed, in the meantime, is a copy of Thompson‘s “The Great Shark Hunt,” alongside “The Thurber Carnival” and Ben Hecht’s “A Child of the Century.” I use them as cures for insomnia. Not that they put me to sleep, but they make the insomnia more bearable. As for The Rum Diary, I’m glad Johnny Depp got his hands on it and that they finally released the picturre and glad that the movie expressed at least some of the well-directed, on-target bile that Thompson spewed, in his life after San Juan, so eloquently, so outrageously, so fiercely, so accurately and so hilariously. (And maybe hopelessly, but that’s all right.)

Extras: Featurettes.

Raoul Duke at work

A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas (Two and a Half Stars)

U.S.: Todd Strauss-Schulson (2011) (Warner Bros.)

Comedy sometimes thrives on taboos transgressed and sacred cows slaughtered, and very few cows are left standing after the irreverent and cheerfully offensive bad taste orgy that is A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas. The movie, a comedy that made me laugh (or at least didn’t keep serving up clunkers, like many comedies these days) marks the return of those hapless stoner White Castle-loving cut-ups, Korean-American good-guy Harold (John Cho) and Indian-American weed-head Kumar (Kal Penn), putting them through another night of comic hell, fueled by mishaps, mayhem and massive ingestion of various controlled substances, especially (but not exclusively) marijuana.

This is the kind of Christmas Eve that might have tested the mettle of even Jimmy Stewart’s guardian angel Clarence in It’s a Wonderful Life. As Harold & Kumar try to survive, Christmas trees are burned down, Santa Claus is shot down from the skies, vehicles overturn (with our heroes inside), Ukrainian gangsters and drug dealers run wild, virgins are deflowered and Neil Patrick Harris shows up to do a reprise of his outrageous series character “Neil Patrick Harris,” singing and dancing with Harold & Kumar in a sizzling Busby Berkeley style Yuletide number, with Harris once again pretending to be “Harris,” a sex maniac and publicity-whoring ham.

Six years have passed since Harold & Kumar’s last movie outing, 2008’s Harold & Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay. (Yeah, I know it doesn’t add up.) They’ve drifted apart as best buds — Harold to become a yuppified Wall Street wuss and Kumar to continue trying to stay perpetually stoned. But they meet again, and things start going wrong immediately. A Christmas gift to Harold of a huge joint (brought by Kumar after it arrives in his mail) accidentally burns down the beloved 12-foot-tall Douglas fir Christmas tree, brought over to the home of Harold and his wife Maria (Paula Garces) by Harold’s mean, picky father-in Law Mr. Perez (Danny Trejo, in his “mean as hell” key), who doesn’t like Maria‘s choice. Our guys then start an epic race around town trying to find a replacement.

While our guys chase the spirit of Christmas through one catastrophe after another, a blizzard of scatological gags and ethnic jokes about Jewish and African-Americans, Asians, Caucasians, Ukrainians, gays and innumerable others spew out at us with the regularity — since the movie is in 3D — of the objects being hurled at the camera and us in all three dimensions, including claymation penises, fake jism, fake cocaine and fake ganja smoke. (It’s a good thing William Castle — no relation to White — never got hold of this material, or he might have tried to publicize the show by devising the new audience participation projection device Marijuana-Rama, and gotten the entire theatre arrested). If you’ve been wondering about the right way to use 3D, this movie has what seems an inspired suggestion: Kid the Hell out of it.

You may laugh. (You may not.) I did. But will you be offended? Perhaps. The movie tries very hard to trample on the sensibilities of everyone possible and its pieces de resistance de bad taste are definitely the nude lesbian nun orgy and the scene in the Ukrainian drug czar’s (Elias Koteas) lush digs where a three year old accidentally ingests part of a cloud of cocaine. Otherwise A Very H&K becomes almost sentimental about friendship and marriage and Harold and Kumar getting together again, and about Santa Claus (Richard Riehle), that old red-suited rascal, who turns out to be a pot aficionado himself, and who keeps ho-ho-hoing even when people accidentally take potshots at his sleigh and put a bullet in his sack arm.

Kal Penn and John Cho are one of the more unusual comedy teams around; they don’t fill the classic roles of the smoothie and the hysteric or dummy, which applies to most teams from Abbott and Costello and Martin and Lewis to Cheech and Chong. Or at least they don‘t here. Instead they’re a couple of innocents puffing away, hurled into the comic inferno of big city chaos. They’re screw-ups, but endearing ones — though not as endearing as the Wafflebot, a tender-hearted little robot who makes waffles and develops a crush on one of the boys.

The movie was directed by new-to-the-series Todd Strauss-Schulson and written by old hands Ron Hurwitz and Hayden Schlossberg, who’ve scripted all three Harold & Kumars. (Hurwitz directed the second.) Laughter is sometimes subversive but A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas cheerfully suggests that sex and drugs are fit subjects for comedy (not exactly a radical concept in today’s Hollywood), and also that marriage and pregnancy have their charms, even in a stoned bromance.

Is it mentally or morally healthy to laugh at jokes about ganja, sex between teenagers, burning Christmas trees and the backstage antics of “Neil Patrick Harris?“ (Bring back Doogie Howser.) Who knows? Meanwhile, A Very Harold & Kumar Christmas won’t erase your memories of either It’s a Wonderful Life or Up in Smoke. But it may make you laugh without inhaling — as long as you don’t see it in Ganja-Scope or Marijuana-Rama.

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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon