The Rum Diary marks Johnny Depp’s return to Hunter S. Thompson territory, following his cult favorite work in Terry Gilliam’s delirious adaptation of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Yet audiences expecting more of the same drug-fueled mania will be disappointed. While it’s filled with offbeat characters and the occasional stylistic quirk, Bruce Robinson’s film offers a straightforward, earnest narrative about a young marble-mouthed author finding his writing voice while fighting capitalist corruption.
Set in a volatile Puerto Rico, circa 1960, Thompson’s semi-autobiographical story follows struggling journalist/alter ego Paul Kemp (Depp) as he joins the staff at a local rag run by domineering editor-in-chief Lotterman (Richard Jenkins). It’s a day-to-day portrait of Kemp’s hard living in paradise, set against a backdrop of conflict between the natives hoping to protect their land and the capitalistic cronies interested in transforming the archipelago nation into an overdeveloped tourist spot.
The film moves and breathes a lot like one of those tourist calling card pictures, with pristine, sun-drenched wide shots of a beach framed by clear blue water contrasting with the sweaty interior of a dance club or the rustic charm of a crumbling Spanish-style abode. The aura of luxurious glamour is manifest in the sleek white outfits donned by the protagonists and the jazz-infused score as well.
As Chenault, girlfriend to ostensibly villainous developer Sanderson (Aaron Eckhart), Amber Heard enhances the hedonistic undertones, being dressed up like a ’50s Barbie doll, proving relentlessly seductive in her illicit advances toward Paul and enjoying a skinny-dipping adventure or two.
But it’s all window dressing, as the conflicts are undercooked, Depp’s performance rote and the film mired in a sort of existential haze. The movie centers on the conflict between the downscale life of a freelance journalist and the high-end pleasures — a yacht trip, a Chevy convertible and various forms of resplendent scenery — offered by Sanderson, in exchange for Paul crafting articles that support his development plans.
That moral struggle is rendered with a sort of abiding disinterest, with Eckhart portraying Sanderson as your everyday sleazy huckster with a vision for the island that doesn’t exactly qualify as earth-shatteringly outlandish or offensive. The perfectly-coiffed, muscled developer lashes out at locals, drinks in the pleasures of his enormous wealth and demonstrates a steadfast propensity for getting what he wants. But the cause he represents never seems quite outrageous enough to serve as a professional pivot point for Kemp, an awakening to journalism’s noblest potential.
Having spent so much time playing various forms of oddballs, from Captain Jack Sparrow to Willy Wonka, Depp seems out of his depth as the relatively low-key, put-upon Kemp, who has a propensity for alcohol and experimentation with illicit substances but is at heart an everyday hard worker. The hushed, mumbled line delivery and all-around lack of proactive behavior neuters Depp’s expressive talents. In forcing the actor to find a way into a regular working stiff, the movie turns him into a personality deprived piece of scenery who’s routinely upstaged by co-stars Giovanni Ribisi (as Nazi-loving crime/religion reporter Moburg) and Michael Rispoli (playing Kemp’s frequently disheveled colleague/best friend Sala).
Mostly, the movie flounders because it never drums up the energy to meaningfully pursue its narrative or the drug-tripping, Voodoo priestess-visiting side adventures undertaken by the protagonist. It’s a parade of strange characters and pretty settings and a flick that pays lip service to the journalist’s obligation to go after “the bastards,” as Kemp calls the power-hungry capitalist heavies. All that’s missing is the inspiration, the spirit, the visceral sense that The Rum Diary is the sort of hopping, fun ride one expects from a fish-out-of-water tale about the Gonzo journalist’s early career, set on an island paradise.
The Upside: The movie is quite scenic and stars a lot of pretty people. The period details are precise and well-conveyed.
The Downside: There’s not much energy to the picture and Johnny Depp seems lost.
On the Side: For the usual reasons (development hell etc.), it’s taken more than a decade to get this film made and released.