By Bill Wine
KYW Newsradio 1060
“Vividly average.” That’s the phrase used to describe the readership of the newspaper featured in The Rum Diary.
It also describes the movie itself.
But it could have been a lot worse, given our memory of the last time the enormously talented Johnny Depp collaborated on material connected to his good friend, gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson. That resulted, back in 1998, in the excruciatingly atrocious Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, in which Depp does a virtual impression of Thompson.
The Rum Diary is an adventure comedy-drama about the exotic misadventures of a newspaper reporter. It’s based on the 1961 novel, his second, of the same name by pre-gonzo Thompson.
No, it’s nowhere near as awful as Fear and Loathing, so there’s nothing to fear or loathe. But there’s not a whole lot to admire or love either, even if it no trial to sit through.
Depp, who also served as a producer, plays Thompson-like Paul Kemp, a hard-drinking freelance journalist who travels to lawless, wide-open-to-exploitation Puerto Rico in 1960 after losing patience with his native country and the government running it.
He settles in bustling San Juan, where the working class is oppressed by the moneyed powers-that-be, and he writes for the rundown San Juan Star — which is having the kind of troubles that foreshadow what today’s newspapers are going through — and its worldweary editor, Edward J. Lotterman, played by Richard Jenkins, along with colleagues and fellow expatriates played by Giovanni Ribisi and Michael Rispoli.
As the title suggests, rum is Kemp’s drink of choice, and the stunning Chenault (played by Amber Heard) his woman of obsessive choice. She just happens to be the flirtatious fiancée of a shady entrepreneur named Sanderson, played by Aaron Eckhart, who is involved in some questionable property development deals and wants Kemp to accept money to write about him in a favorable light.
Which creates an interesting dilemma for Kemp, given his vested interest in the matter. To praise or to bury? And can he accomplish anything through the mainstream media anyway?
British writer-director Bruce Robinson (Withnail & I, Jennifer Eight, How to Get Ahead in Advertising) gives the film a jaunty bounce, especially in the early going, but his script meanders from one subplot to the next like a staggering drunk.
Robinson manages to keep his protagonist at the center of the storm, but neither his screenplay nor Depp’s performance manages to calibrate Kemp’s conversion from besotted burnout to anti-corruption activist in a very convincing way. The romantic triangle that develops works somewhat better, but still falls short of satisfying.
Like Puerto Rico at the time, the script and the film are rum-soaked; that is to say, wildly undisciplined and indulgently aimless.
There are certainly individual scenes that are dramatically arresting, pleasantly diverting, or visually compelling, but the film doesn’t follow through on most of its subplots and ends up seeming a lot less than the sum of its parts.
So we’ll drink 2 stars out of 4 for this ho-ho-hum-and-a-bottle-of-rum period dramedy. The Rum Diary has lots of Depp, but precious little depth.