Friday, October 28, 2011

no one is scared of Johnny Depp (a film review)

I just saw The Rum Diary starring Johnny Depp. I enjoyed this film a lot. It is well paced, fun, beautiful, caustic, and funny ...yet... Depp just never seemed right as Thompson (thinly veiled as Paul Kemp, Puerto Rico journalist in the early 1960s).

Before critiquing Depp, let me run through a few non-Depp related points:

I can recommend this film without hesitation as unquestionably worth your time and money. Go see this film. This film is better than 95% of the films that have come out in the last 20 years. I'm not joking, Go see this film.

Brilliant dialogue: Kudos to writer/direct Bruce Robinson for allowing Thompson's witty yet brutally incisive social critiques to highlight the dialogue. This is a beautifully rendered script. It was an honor to listen to characters say interesting things again after decades of trite piffle littering our movie screens. This is the best screenplay since 2009's An Education.

Giovanni Ribisi is fantastic as the weird, drunk, Hitler-loving Moburg. His performance alone is worth the price of admission.

Amber Heard is visually stunning, but she is rarely given more than 6 words to say at a time (same is true for her performance in Pineapple Express). With so few lines, it's not clear if she is a bad actor or if no one will give her the chance to act. I couldn't help but be reminded of Scarlett Johansson, who is truly beautiful, but is an utterly cringe-worthy actor (only Sofia Coppola has managed to wring a competent performance out of her).

That said...

I am a Johnny Depp fan. I like most of his films. I have known Depp to be a Thompson devotee for some time, but only this week learned he actually lived with Thompson for a couple years in the early 1990s (if I read this correctly).

But! Depp has something of the vaudevillian in him. A knowing performer, deft at character, but always with a nod to the audience about the fa├žade, the game, a wink to their suspension of disbelief. Enjoy the show folks, glad you could spare some time for my little charade. It is precisely this man-behind-the-curtain nod that troubled me throughout the film. I had a similar response to Depp's turn as Thompson in the 1998 film, but I couldn't quite put it to words.

I grew up in a family of Hunter Thompson fans. My three older brothers lived Thompson-esque lives (complete with hilarious, madcap drug addled stories, but also to horrible ends in one case). I read Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas when I was 12 and loved it. I read everything Thompson I could find. My dad once found about 30 old Rolling Stone magazines at a yard sell for like $2 and bought the lot and they were filled with Thompson articles. I read them all. I read Hell Angels, The Great Shark Hunt. Hell, I even read The Curse of Lono. Like all Thompson fans, I knew of the existence of The Rum Diary, his first novel written in the 1960s but not published until the late 1990s, and I yearned for the chance to read the unpublished manuscript. When it finally did get published, I jumped at it. Some of you line up for Harry Potter movies, I lined up for The Rum Diaries.

So, I respect Johnny Depp's talent and sincerity and I defer to the fact that he actually knew the man quite well (and I didn't); nonetheless, Hunter S. Thompson played a remarkably important role in my formative years and I feel that entitles me to a certain level of critique (I could be wrong about that...entitlements are typically bullshit ... but this is my bullshit).

And my critique is this: Johnny Depp lacks authenticity. I cannot buy him as Thompson. At least, I cannot buy him as the embodiment of my conception of Thompson. Depp is fun, quirky, smarmy, but always superficial. Thompson is dangerously loose, and frighteningly deep. Depp is never dangerous because his knowing smirk lets us know it's just a game. Thompson never lets us off the hook this way. You may question the truth of Thompson's claims secretly, in your heart, but Thompson never lets you question him to his face, you wouldn't dare. You'd be too scared. But no one is scared of Johnny Depp. He's a kid playing dress up.

This is not a losing battle. Bill Murray's 1980 performance as Thompson in Where the Buffalo Roam is dead on. Murray nails Thompson's duality of hilarious and dangerous, fun and scary, fake and real. Johnny Depp nails the hilarious, fun, fake parts, but fails at the dangerous, scary, real parts. No duality. Perhaps my early, formative exposure to that 1980 film has poisoned me to all others. Maybe.

Regardless, I end with my opening plea: Go see this film. You will be happy you did.

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