by James Killough
Without knowing the exact insider gossip behind the release of The Rum Diary, I can only take a somewhat educated guess as to what’s created this mess at the Mad Hatter’s tea table.
The film has three credited financing companies, but I imagine there is a fourth: Johnny Depp himself, a longtime friend of Hunter S. Thompson’s, who no doubt magnanimously overpaid for the rights to the novel, and wants to see his money back, which is why his has thrown his considerable weight behind the film’s PR: a Vanity Fair cover article; pieces he wrote himself for The Daily Beast and others; and a rather forced, not-very-funny “viral” video with Ricky Gervais. Otherwise, Depp has suffered a mild psychotic break and actually believes this piece of absolute tripe is worthy cinema.
As a screenwriter, I am naturally sensitive to plot and dialogue. After the first five lines of this—a hackneyed scene in a hotel room in San Juan that makes Terry Gilliam’s absurd but kinda fun Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas seem like Citizen Kane—I wanted to get up and leave.
Nobody sets out to make a bad film, and it’s pretty obvious from the PR behind this and the way it is made that they really believed they would have an indie hit on their hands. There is certainly passion behind the subject matter of this piece, namely the arrogance of the American white man’s cynical colonization of Puerto Rico. But if I was at all unsure of the film’s political message, which I wasn’t, the fact that I saw it with my Shriekin’ Rican, Willy, only drove home a certain untruthfulness about the film’s portrayal of his country and its history, which the filmmakers rather disingenuously try to hit you over the head with, relentlessly. He was actually sort of offended. Why, had he not also thought it was just crazy boring bad filmmaking, too, and a complete waste of a rainy Sunday night in Miami, he might have been downright indignant. And that isn’t Willy Rivera.
I picked up a copy of the current Vanity Fair with Johnny Depp on the cover at the supermarket the other day because I wanted to read the article by the economist Michael Lewis (not to be confused with my friend Michael Lewis, the hot Israeli actor) about how California is America’s Greece, a financial disaster zone that may pull us all under.
I know, I know. That last sentence is like the homo version of the classic straight guy who claims he buys Playboy for the articles, not the boobs. But it’s true; normally I can’t stand VF, for various amorphous personal reasons that have more to do with the magazine’s personality than my professional relationship with it, but I really like Michael Lewis’s clarity, and some of the rag’s political satire. The last time I read VF was Lewis’ article on how the monks of Mount Athos—basically a bunch of misogynist gay bears in black robes isolated on a remote peninsula that doesn’t even have hens because all female animals are forbidden—brought down Greece, and by extension pushed Europe herself to the brink of collapse.
Flipping through this issue proves that VF has become fuddy-duddy, completely irrelevant, sunk by its own cronyism, repetitiveness, and, well, rampant vanity. Except for Lewis and a few of the political bits, it’s unreadable. Yet another article on the Harrimans/Churchills/Astors/whatever monied old British-American family with yellowing letters in fading ink layered under images of Noel Coward aboard some ocean liner? Yet another article on a bespoke London tailor who dressed Marlene Dietrich and Gary Cooper? An interview with Marissa Berenson? Huh? She was over when I was still a teenager.
VF is not so much a magazine any more as it is a cabinet of curiosities gathering dust in the back corner of journalism history, while Tina Brown, who brought it back to life in the 80s, goes on reinventing the medium and herself, hook or by crook, hit or miss. It’s the monthly newsletter of a musty, has-been club I have no interest in belonging to.
It is sort of relevant to The Rum Diary, Hunter S. Thompson’s only novel, which he wrote when he was twenty-two and rightfully should never have published, that I relate my experience writing for magazines and my brush with VF. That’s what TRD is about: being an idealistic crap young hack. Despite looking fifteen years younger than he really is (damn him!), Depp is too old to be playing such a character with any sense of pathos or conviction; he’s basically a comedian.
When I was a young writer and features editor of the US version of an Italian fashion rag, I had a terrible falling out with my editor-in-chief, if you could call him that; he was some asshat business guy from Milan who just seized power one day from his partner, fucked the guy over, came to NYC and declared himself “prezident, poblisher, and edeetor-in-cheef,” with barely a clue as to how a magazine was put together. After a screaming match worthy of a traffic accident in central Rome during rush hour, we agreed that I would finish up the issues I had planned as features editor and move on, which with lead times in those days—plus the fact nobody was there to replace me because there was a hiring freeze (we weren’t even being paid our salaries regularly, just like the staff of the San Juan Star in The Rum Diary)—meant about six months down the line. The whole thing was silly and weird.
Our magazine was best known for its groundbreaking fashion photography, not its articles, certainly not mine; they were turds in words, and I hope every last one of them has vanished from the face of the earth. I shudder with embarrassment sometimes recalling the mounds of cack I penned. I couldn’t keep up with the content required, and I couldn’t hire freelancers (no budget), therefore much of it I had to write myself under various pseudonyms so it didn’t seem like the whole magazine was seventy-five percent written by me, which it was, broken up with maybe a gossip column by a pre-Village Voice Michael Musto, whom I also couldn’t pay. It was a typical Italian casino totale, as they call an out-of-control mess.
Plus, I simply wasn’t a very good writer. I’d dropped out of college after my freshman year, for which English was waived as a requirement for all students from prep schools like mine, presumably so the students not from prep schools like mine could catch up with us. In other words, I only had high school English, and I’d been raised in Italy. The sole reason I had this job is because I was bilingual and could communicate with the owners, not because I had any real clue how to string a decent article together.
But there I was, scribbling away, with no time to even review my articles before I threw them at the copy editor—who would later replace me as features editor—and dashed off to a photo shoot, or to catch a plane, or some virago-magazine-deadline-chronic-anxiety thing, but I was getting published every month, and on supermarket racks around the country, and I sucked so badly people were cancelling their subscriptions because of the drivel I was writing.
It didn’t help that, like Hunter S. Thompson, I was continuously self-medicated on some fairly heavy shit.
The one thing I hated doing the most was celebrity interviews. It was like trying to sharpen a pencil with my ear. I still won’t read them; I imagine them appealing only to women stuck under hairdryers in salons. Any celeb worth her salt doesn’t want to talk about herself any more; they’re just actors with a bit of talent who have lucked out and don’t have anything very interesting left to say. So it’s a nightmare getting anything fresh from them, or what I would consider interesting.
Even VF has this problem, with all of the resources they have. This month’s Johnny Depp interview, for instance, is written by a good friend of his, Nick Tosches, the godfather of one of his children, which gives the piece a rare personal angle, and also guarantees that Depp can control his image.
After my fallout and sort-of sacking by the douche-in-chief, I flirted briefly with moving to VF to help edit a portion of the magazine known as “the front of the book,” which is actually critical to a magazine because those are all the tidbits that face the more expensive advertising pages. It was the late 80s, Tina Brown was still editor-in-chief, and she was on a roll that would take her through the astoundingly successful reboot of The New Yorker and onto where she is now at The Daily Beast-Newsweek. She absolutely terrified me, but thankfully I never had an interview with her, just with her various sub-editors.
The VF offices then were in the old Condé Nast building on Madison, just down from where mine already were, except the one I was slowly leaving had far better views and working conditions, despite the fact the douche-in-chief chain-smoked so heavily he eventually had to have a lung removed. The owner of Condé Nast, Sy Newhouse, knew how to run a sweatshop. Posh smart kids pay for the privilege of working there. Very scary.
I have always wondered what might have happened if I had taken the job at VF and not the feature screenwriting gig in India, which is what I ended up doing. It seemed so zany at the time; India was on nobody’s map. My life certainly would have been far less Hunter S. Thompson-ish, for sure. Until I read this issue of VF, I’ve suspected on and off that I did the wrong thing; VF would have opened doors for me in Hollywood, perhaps (not that it ever did much good for other editors and writers from there who had filmmaking ambitions). What the hell was I doing in Bollywood, other than mounds of cheap, fantastic drugs? But after this recent issue, I am positive I did the right thing, the only right thing. The VF gig was never really a choice.
To being with, I would have had to sit in the same cramped room as VF’s fashion editor at the time, André Leon Talley. He gave me the creeps. Not only did he look at me like I was a specimen in a cabinet he was overly curious about, he was loud and made fatuous proclamations in that ridiculously camp Fashionese, incessantly, like a nervous dowager with incurable logorrhea. I’ve never understood Talley, nor what he does exactly, other than survive the turgid, razor-barbed corridors of Condé Nast decade after decade. He’s certainly not personally stylish in my book, so I’m not sure why he still has a style tidbit column in the front of Vogue. Maybe Anna Wintour finds him soothing, or more likely he knows some horrendous secret about the Newhouses and can never be fired.
But Talley is a soft target. Like many not-very-attractive fashion people who yearn for a world of beauty that reflects their inner vision of themselves, he’s made a life as sort of court jester in rarified motley. Good for him, sincerely. He’s just not a person with whom I would ever want to share an office.
I finally read the Depp article in VF this morning. I wanted to see TRD before I researched anything about it, and wrote the beginning of this piece before reading Nick Tosches’ interview. Apparently Depp is entirely to blame for this fiasco on film; as Tosches puts it, it’s “as much Johnny’s vision as Hunter’s.” Some of the reasons I originally speculated about—i.e., that Depp has thrown his weight behind it to get his money back—might be in play, but basically it seems that it boils down to two things: delusion and bad producing.
There is a reason producers accept the Best Picture Oscar, not the director. They are responsible for putting the film together, soup to nuts. Depp is a full producer on TRD, and his first mistake was hiring Bruce Robinson to write as well as direct. “I pulled the fucker out of retirement,” he tells Tosches. This is presumably because Thompson admired Robinson’s sleeper indie hit Withnail and I, which I did too, but very little of that film’s madcapness is to be found in this sluggish script and stop-and-start jerky direction.
In a separate smaller interview planted six pages earlier to kick off the Vanities section in VF, the almost too stunning female lead, Amber Heard, is quoted as saying this about the film (it’s actually clearly lifted from some PR copy by whichever young putz actually currently has the job I might have once held at the magazine): “It’s a classic story of love in a life of commerce and imperialism and American greed that is confronted with a lifestyle based on beauty.”
I always talk like that, especially when I’m blond.
And therein lies the movie’s fatal flaw: its earnestness. He might be a traditional family man (in the French vein), but Depp doesn’t do earnest earnestly. We can’t take him seriously enough: he has worn gardening shears as hands; he has flounced around as a B-movie director in a D cup and a woman’s angora sweater; he has turned Keith Richards into a flaming pirate queen; he is the Mad Hatter, Sweeney Todd, and Willy Wonka all rolled into one. But a social activist for a colonized people who are at most ambivalent about being a part of the US, if not completely behind it? No.
Don’t get me wrong, I love Depp, I think he’s deeply cool, and above all wish I had his skin (though I’d rather have my height, if I had to choose). But when it comes to producing, he is no Brad Pitt, whose Plan B has made some clunkers at the box office, but none that were just bad filmmaking, like TRD. Robinson and Depp should have stuck to what they know: madcap humor without the moralizing, Withnail and I meets Fear and Loathing set in San Juan with a stunning blonde out of Mad Men, who unlike January Jones seems like she can actually act. As it is, it was like watching the Keystone Cops aspiring to be DW Griffith doing a film entirely in slow motion about striking California policemen who are the victims of cutbacks with only a couple of stunt sequences. Utterly painful.
It’s a pity: even though I’m not a big Hunter S. Thompson fan, I wanted this film to be great for all of the personal reasons mentioned above and more.
I was thinking only this weekend that we would never give a “crap” rating to a film we review because we would never actually see something that was so bad as to warrant that.
(Find all these movies online at a discount.)