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It’s exasperating when a talented enough cast and crew turn out such a spiraling mess of a film. In Johnny Depp’s latest, The Rum Diary,
that’s pretty much what you get: a good looking/sounding mess, but a
mess all the same that overstays its welcome with little payoff to the
characters, let alone the viewers.
What’s regrettable is that
writer/director Bruce Robinson had been a recovering alcoholic for
over six years before signing on for “Diary.” He started
drinking again to “ease” his writer’s block and given the final product, it shows.
Depp plays Paul Kemp, a disillusioned writer at
odds with the 1960s authoritarianism found in America who flees to Puerto
Rico and quickly gets hired as a writer for the San Juan Star.
Assigned to write horoscopes and cover tourism at local bowling alleys, through a series of timed events Paul encounters photographer/new best
friend Bob Sallas (Michael Rispoli) and Sanderson (Aaron Eckhart), a local
businessman with corporate interests acquiring land across Puerto Rico. He also meets Sanderson’s girlfriend, Chenault (Amber Heard).
Depp clearly has his heart in the right place, but isn’t given much
in the beginning to make Paul all that interesting of a protagonist to
latch onto. Paul is just kind of — blah. Rispoli gets more to play with
(not to mention better lines) as his buddy Sallas, and Giovanni Ribisi is a
scene-stealer as fellow writer Morberg, a guy whose veins pump more
alcohol than blood. Eckhart is seedy enough, but again, not all that
interesting while Heard (surprisingly) grows on you through the film’s
run. That’s still not saying much though.
You’d think being under the influence of so much alcohol and controlled
substances would be as entertaining as another Hunter S. Thompson
adaptation, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Ribisi carries the
weight of that drunken humor and while there are a few (literally two)
instances of this “substance” style, they are sparse and while Paul
feels inspired, thw viewer is left to laugh at him.
To the movie’s
credit, it looks great overall because most of what
you’re seeing is the high-end/touristy aspects of Puerto Rico, with a
little commonality thrown in to make it feel authentic. Even the later
settings feel glossed over with a sheen of style. From the opening
frames, you know what the film is going to play for you and it’s both
welcome and a touch uninspired at the same time.
Now for the film’s main problem: The plot and tone go off-rail at about
20 minutes and not in a charming way. Given the atmosphere of the
film, that could be the intent of Robinson, who hasn’t sat in a
director’s chair since 1992. Intentional or not, “Diary” has a hard time
keeping the viewer engaged, let alone entertained as it changes its
tone every other scene. Is this a fish-out-of-water adventure? A social commentary on the American Dream? A conspiracy caper? Is
it about racism in Puerto Rico? More than once, I was tempted to yell at
the screen “make up your damn mind!” By the time Paul and the film find
their “voice,” it’s too little, way too late and you just want the damn
thing to be over. In its third act, the film finally adopts a more
consistent tone, but does it in a manner that feels both heavy-handed and
In the end, The Rum Diary wants to say a lot of things
but fails. It is less a coherent story and more of a slurred, rambling
vision lacking a distinct voice, much like a drunken friend whose story
never seems to end. It fails to leave an impression as strong as
Thompson’s work/influence in writing and to that note, “Diary” deserved
The Rum Diary
Directed by Bruce Robinson
Written by Bruce Robinson (screenplay), Hunter S. Thompson (Novel)
Starring: Johnny Depp, Aaron Eckhart, Amber Heard, Michael Rispoli, Richard Jenkins