A rum diary: Fear and self-loathing in the multiplex
A rushed faux-Hunter S. Thompson review of the latest 'Johnny Depp as Hunter S. Thompson' Hollywood cash cow
We were in the parking lot of the local multiplex when I told her that I hadn't scored the mushrooms that I had never really planned on scoring in the first place. My attorney let out a half-uncomfortable laugh that I think meant, "You didn't actually think I was going along with your plan to eat handfuls of mushrooms in the parking lot of this shopping center on a Monday night just so you could write a rushed faux-Hunter S. Thompson review of the latest 'Johnny Depp as Hunter S. Thompson' Hollywood cash cow, right?" In any case, she did what any good attorney would do at this moment: pulled the fifth from my backseat, filled up a shiny, steel flask, lit a cigarette.
We were inside the multiplex already when she noticed that a man with a metal-detecting wand was standing at the entrance to the theater, a warning to cell-phone pirates and contraband carriers. We went back out to the parking lot and killed the flask in a few long gulps and put away our cell phones and lit a couple more cigarettes.
"This is why we should've brought mushrooms," she said before putting out her cigarette on the wall outside the theater. Thoughtful reminders like that are why I keep her on retainer. I should mention that my attorney has no experience or degree in law, but long, strawberry blonde hair, a thorough familiarity with living on the cheap in Latin America that seems to qualify her for giving advice on just about anything, and legs that go on forever. We all have our strengths.
The guy seated in front of us in the theater was indiscreetly whispering, "What do I do with my hands without a cell phone? I can't remember what I used to do in theaters before the movie without it. I can't check anything, I don't know what's happening." And then the screen was blazing THE RUM DIARY over an aerial shot of Puerto Rico.
The Rum Diary is, more or less, a pornographic fantasy of what it means to write for a newspaper. The island newspaper's financials are going to shit, the newsroom is packed with hacks and drunks, but the intrepid, liberal-minded, incredibly good-looking hero-reporter can talk his way into and out of thrilling trouble at any given hour of the day. A Faustian millionaire douche bag played by the excellently douche-y Aaron Eckhart shows up to tempt the reporter into assisting with a hilariously unethical and evil real estate scheme. After the perfect storm of rum shots, cock fights, car chases, and an acid trip, the reporter literally sails off into the sunset to, as the postscript tells us, marry the douche bag's profoundly flighty blonde ex-girlfriend and become a world renowned journalist. Something like that.
Later, around midnight, we were in a hotel bar drinking a third round of mai tais and I told my attorney the story about how, when I was teenager, I found stacks and stacks of old Rolling Stone issues in my father's office. Like everything else in his office, they hung around in old, yellow piles, not far from the typewriter that he had stopped using years earlier. That had really been the first time I'd read Thompson, I told her, in those big, old spreads of broadsheet. I've lugged them around for years now in a box and every time I touch an issue, the yellowed paper tears and flakes into pieces. If I keep trying to read them, they're just going to turn to dust.
She told me about reading the The Rum Diary in a little place in El Salvador, where the rooms without air-conditioning were cheaper, so she just lay on the bed reading with the ceiling fan spinning and the window open and the waves crashing out in the distance. Then she made the point that the movie version amounts to Thompson's whole vision of journalism, glossed and made plain by Hollywood: We reporters hang out with ethically suspect millionaires just long enough to drive their sports cars and fuck their girlfriends and, when the time is right for us, leave their mansion yelling, "Bastards! Bastards!" in a self-righteous blaze of glory that shames their ethically suspect and undeniably romantic millionaire lifestyles.
It's a rather ingenious arrangement of enabling logic: You're not a part of it because you're the one taking notes. It's enough to convince some dumbshit teenager reading his father's old copies of Rolling Stone that he, too, should write for the papers while keeping track of the hours by the level of the bottle nearest to him. It's also the sort of logic that, if you're a neurotic reporter sitting in your kitchen at 4 o'clock in the morning and your attorney is long gone, may prompt you to start thinking about the fact that you can't remember the last time when you were doing anything without worrying about whether you were taking enough notes. That the last time you ate mushrooms you spent half the time trying to decide what would be the most straightforward way to describe the rolling wave in your brain feeling. That the last time someone told you that they were in love with you, the first thing you thought was, "I should remember to write this down."
Later that morning, as the sun was coming up through the windows in the newsroom, I remembered that my editor probably wanted me to say at least something about the film itself, maybe mention that Giovanni Ribisi has a memorable, though one-note, role as a hilariously ravaged alcoholic or that the film itself is fun without being all that great. There's a line near the end, spoken by Johnny Depp in a manner that seems desperate to channel every bit of available seriousness in his body for a profound message, that goes something like, "It's the smell of bastards. It's also the smell of truth. I smell ink." The worst part of that faux-philosophical moment is that it feels like he's right.