Sporadically entertaining but wildly uneven, ‘The Rum Diary’ doesn’t live up to the hype by never being nearly as out there as it seems to want to be. I know that Johnny Depp (who literally got the novel published and has spent about a decade getting this thing made) and writer/director Bruce Robinson wanted to really honor Hunter S. Thompson and this particular work, but while their hearts are in the right place, what comes up on the big screen just underwhelms much more than I expected it to. The movie never really finds its groove and it seems to rub off on the actors, who all come off as being slightly disinterested in the material, though you can’t call their work bad by any stretch. The flick is always nice to look at, convincingly recreating Puerto Rico in the 1960‘s, but it only periodically manages to keep your interest. It works as light entertainment, but cross this one off as an Oscar contender in any way, shape, or form. Honestly, it’s kind of a mess. That’s not automatically a bad thing, and could have been a benefit to something created in Thompson’s warped mind, but that’s not the case here.
Obviously semi-autobiographical but not in any way that matters much, the film chronicles one of the early adventures of Thompson, with his alter ego this time being journalist Paul Kemp (Depp). Fed up with life in New York, Kemp heads to San Juan to take a job at the local newspaper. A binge drinker, he gets the job mostly because he’s the only applicant. The editor at the San Juan Star is Edward Lotterman (Richard Jenkins), someone who always seems to be frustrated at the shenanigans of his writers. Kemp begins to make associations with fellow writers Sala (Michael Rispoli) and Moburg (Giovanni Ribisi), while also catching the eye of shady land developer Sanderson (Aaron Eckhart), who wants to exploit Kemp’s writing to make more money for himself. Catching Kemp’s eye is Sanderson’s American girlfriend Chenault (Amber Heard). All the while, he’s drinking too much and getting into misadventures and periodically feeling inclined to want to help the have-nots on the island. Mostly, he just sits around and looks hung over. No one here especially has much to do, and the plot is even thinner than it sounds.
Johnny Depp undoubtedly is paying heavy homage to his friend Thompson, but the performance comes out much blander than was the intention. Once in a blue moon he does something amusing, but mostly it seems like a watered down version of his Thompson alias in ‘Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas’. He’s hardly doing poor work, but just hardly noteworthy work. I applaud Depp for not just making another ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ movie or dress up for Tim Burton, but this just isn’t as good a performance as I was hoping for. The same goes for Aaron Eckhart. He’s fine, but the character is very underwritten and doesn’t feel like it’s that essential. I expected a little more from the showdown between Depp and Eckhart, but they don’t give you too much. Michael Rispoli and Giovanni Ribisi are mostly on hand for comic relief but do their jobs well enough, with Rispoli kind of being a proto-version of Dr. Gonzo from ‘Fear and Loathing’, while Ribisi plays a burn out nicely. As for Richard Jenkins, he’s mostly wasted. Honestly, the highlight here for me was Amber Heard. She’s gloriously sexy and a bit of a spark that the film really could have used more of. When she’s being seductive, things are interested. Sadly, she’s not nearly in the movie enough for my tastes. You’re likely coming for Depp, but he’s one of the most forgettable things about the production.
The direction by Bruce Robinson is strong in a visual sense, but weak in a story and pacing sense. The film moves at a glacial pace, and while the causal tone keeps you from being too bored, I will admit to checking my watch once or twice. Robinson captures the time period in a stunningly good way, but that’s not enough here. His screenplay is only half a movie, and he under-develops every subplot, not to mention barely having a main plot to speak of. Some of the issue is that the source material doesn’t lend itself well into a conventional adaptation, but part of the blame must go to Robinson insisting on finding a conventional film. Sadly, he never is able to find that. There’s nothing terrible going on here, but very little is going right either. It’s mostly just a mush of a movie with the random jolt of humor to temporarily spice things up.
‘The Rum Diary’ certainly has good intentions, but it fails to capitalize on them in any meaningful way. Depp is too subdued and the film on the whole never decides what it wants to be. If you loved ‘Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas’ this might work for you as a lesser companion piece, but if you’re just coming to this on its own, you’re likely to be very disappointed. For every 1 thing the flick does right, it does 2 things wrong. Overall, it’s just not nearly interesting enough to be worth your time. ‘The Rum Diary’ has all the thrills of a light beer, and stays with you just as long.
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